by Martin Khor

Geneva 7 Nov 99 -- A proposal to establish a new working party on biotechnology through the Seattle Ministerial Meeting has been rejected by the vast majority of countries during the informal heads-of-delegation (HOD) meeting at the WTO last Saturday (6 November).

Many developing countries on the other hand supported other proposals to set up three working groups on trade and finance, transfer of technology and trade and debt.

Meanwhile, most WTO Members speaking on electronic commerce were against an indefinite extension of the duty-free status on electronically transmitted goods and services, preferring to give a two-year extension till the 4th Ministerial Meeting, and with some of them wanting even this to be conditional to specific decision that any extension could only by consensus.

Some developing countries also asked for additional language in the text to reflect developing countries' concerns in future work.

These three issues fall under the category "Other Elements of Work Programme" in the draft Ministerial Text being negotiated for Seattle.

The biotechnology working party, with the aim of considering the adequacy and effectiveness of existing rules and the capacity of WTO Members to implement these rules (para 71 of the Text) had originally been proposed by Canada and Japan in two separate papers in October.

This is also linked to a separate proposal of the US to improve WTO disciplines to ensure that trade in agricultural biotechnology products is based on transparent, predictable and timely processes (para But this being a part of the US agricultural text proposals, was however not discussed on Saturday.

Both proposals have been sharply criticised by environmental and development NGOs who accuse a few countries of promoting these 'proposals' in order to undermine efforts led by most developing countries to establish a strong Biosafety Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The few countries (known in the Protocol negotiations as the Miami Group, comprising the US, Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay) are exporters of genetically-engineered agricultural products and have been working to prevent an adequate biosafety protocol requiring the advanced informed consent of importing countries before any genetically modified organisms (and products containing them) can be exported to the country concerned.

According to the NGO critics, the proposals on biotechnology are aimed at constraining the ability of importing countries from taking adequate measures to require that safety measures are taken before allowing importation of GMO products.

During Saturday's meeting, Japan stressed the importance of the proposed biotechnology working party as issues like the safety of GMOs had attracted public concern. The party should also examine food safety and food security as well.

Malaysia said it could not agree to the proposal, as the current WTO rules were already adequate to cover biotechnology products, and there was no reason to give a special status to this issue. It said the GMO issue should be discussed at the CBD instead of the WTO.

Other developing countries that also opposed the working party included Peru, India, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Philippines, Egypt, Hongkong, Haiti, Pakistan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Honduras, Cuba, Bolivia, Nigeria, Senegal. Several also stated that the issue of safety of GMOs should be dealt with at the CBD. Indonesia said a study should be done on the impact of GMOs on developing countries by the FAO and UNCTAD.

Norway also opposed the working party, stating that the issue should be dealt with outside the WTO. Switzerland also rejected the working party, stating that there was nothing special about biotechnology that warranted special treatment and the right forum to deal with it was the CBD. To have the working group in the WTO may create conflict.

Canada supported the proposal as there was no single body in the WTO that was dealing with the diverse issues involved in relation to biotechnology. Also supporting the proposal were Argentina, New Zealand, USA, Chile and Uruguay. Australia said it could support it if there was a consensus on it.

There was widespread support by many developing countries for the proposals to set up the other three working groups on trade and finance, technology transfer and trade and debt. These included Dominican Republic, Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, Kenya, Honduras, Cuba, Nigeria, Senegal, Thailand.

The US said it could not agree to the technology transfer working group although it encouraged such transfer. The EU said that in relation to all the four proposed working groups it would want to consider it further in light of what happens in other parts of the Draft Declaration. If there is a consensus to have the four groups, they should be on a different track for negotiations.

There were also discussions on another issue, WTO Transparency where para 77 calls for improving WTO's transparency by more outreach initiatives (such as symposia) and further pursuit of wider availability of WTO documents.

Panama said it was concerned about this para. Internally at the WTO there was already a difficult problem of transparency. (Panama had earlier complained about the lack of transparency and participation in WTO due to the green-room small-group meetings). Unless this internal transparency problem was dealt with it would be difficult to support external transparency measures. Bolivia agreed with Panama.

Mexico agreed that more information should be given to groups outside WTO but said the reference in the paragraph to outreach programmes and symposia should not be in the Declaration. Cuba, Dominican Republic, India and Jamaica agreed with Mexico.

The Philippines, speaking on behalf also of many Southeast Asian countries said each WTO Member should deal with its own public in its own way in relation to transparency. The approach taken by one Member may be inappropriate for other Members to take. They thus wanted para 77 to be deleted.

The EU stated it would be a mistake not to have something about transparency in the Text.

On current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions, the US wanted it continued indefinitely.

Most countries that spoke did not agree to an indefinite extension but wanted the no-duty practice extended only till the fourth Ministerial, at which time it would be reviewed. These included Switzerland, the EU, Argentina, Canada, Norway, Hongkong, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Egypt.

India said it could not agree to extend the standstill and would need to reflect further. It also proposed that each time there was an extension there had to be a consensus on it. It also wanted more mention on the special needs of developing countries in the text.

Kenya and Nigeria agreed that there was a need to have more language to support the interests of developing countries.

Pakistan said before any decision to extend the moratorium on duty, there should be a study on the fiscal and revenue implications for developing countries.

On Monday, the informal HOD discussed various proposals for new issues, an EC proposal on labour standards for a Joint ILO/WTO Standing Working Forum on Trade, Globalization and Labour issues was introduced, as also another on the WTO role in cooperation with other international organizations to address the challenges of Globalisation.

A large number of developing countries, as well as some from Central and East Europe, rejected these proposals, and made clear they were not ready to go beyond the Singapore Ministerial declaration on these, including for continuance of the existing level of collaboration between the ILO and WTO secretariats.

Some of the delegations also rejected the earlier US proposal and move for making the ILO an observer like some other international organizations, but said they would consider 'independently', an ILO request to be an observer, provided the ILO application satisfied the tests laid out by the WTO for such inter-governmental organizations being observers. (SUNS4547)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.

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

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