by TWN

Seattle, 1 Dec 99 -- The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan said here Tuesday that labour and environment issues should not be used as pretexts for 'trade restrictions' and they were better dealt with by the specialized United Nations agencies promoting their cause.

In an address to the third Ministerial meeting of the WTO, Mr. Annan justified the current fears of developing countries by recounting the high price they had paid in past attempts to liberalise the world economy.

"In the past, developing countries have been told time and again that they stand to benefit from trade liberalization, and that they must open up their economies. They have done so, often at great cost. For the poorest countries, the cost of implementing trade commitments can be more than a whole year's budget."

Mr. Annan pointed out that in the last great round of liberalization - the Uruguay Round - the developing countries cut their tariffs,as they were told to do so. "Even so, they found that rich countries had cut their tariffs less than poor ones. Not surprisingly, many of them feel they were taken for a ride."

Industrialised countries, it seems, he said, are happy enough to export manufactured goods to each other, but from developing countries they still want only raw materials, not finished products. As a result, their average tariffs on the manufactured products they import from developing countries are now four times higher than the ones they impose on products that come mainly from other industrialised countries.

Ever more elaborate ways have been found to exclude Third World imports, the UN Secretary General said, "and these protectionist measures bite deepest in areas where developing countries are most competitive, such as textiles, footwear and agriculture."

"In some industrialised countries, it seems almost as through emerging economies are assumed to be incapable of competing honestly, so that whenever they do produce something at a competitive price they are accused of dumping-- and subjected to anti-dumping duties," he added.

In reality, stated Mr. Annan, "it is the industrialised countries who are dumping their surplus food on world markets-- a surplus generated by subsidies worth $250 billion every year -- and thereby threatening the livelihood of millions of poor farmers in the developing world, who cannot compete with subsidized imports."

"So it is hardly surprising if developing countries suspect that arguments for using trade policy to advance various good causes are really yet another form of disguised protectionism," the UN Secretary General said.

He also cautioned against using globalization as a scapegoat for domestic policy failures. "The industrialised world must not try to solve its own problems at the expense of the poor. It seldom makes sense to use trade restrictions to tackle problems whose origins lie not in trade but in other areas of national and international policy. By aggravating poverty and obstructing development, such restrictions often make the problems they are trying to solve even worse."

What is needed is not new shackles for world trade, said Mr. Annan, but greater determination by governments to tackle social and political issues directly -- and to give the institutions that exist for that purpose the funds and the authority they need. "The United Nations and its specialised agencies are charged with advancing the cause of development, the environment, human rights, and labour. We can be part of the solution."

The UN Secretary General warned that: "Unless we convince developing countries that globalization really does benefit them, the backlash against it will become irresistible. That would be a tragedy for the developing world, and indeed for the world as a whole." (SUNS4564)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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