Earth Trends by Martin Khor


At last year's APEC Summit, Malaysia had called on agreement to be met on an agenda first before launching a New Round in the World Trade Organisation.  Last week, at a seminar in Geneva, Ambassadors from many developing countries said that resolving the problems caused by existing WTO rules should be the priority, and new issues should be kept out of the negotiating agenda.   Their main challenge is to resist the launch of a New Round at the next WTO Ministerial meeting in Qatar in November.


Withstanding the pressures to accepting a New Round of negotiations is one of the major challenges and priorities for developing countries in the World Trade Organisation, according to several Ambassadors from the South.

They were speaking at a panel discussion on "Challenges and Priorities for Developing Countries" at a seminar on Current Developments in the WTO organised by the Third World Network (a Malaysia-based organisation)  in Geneva on 14 March.  The seminar was attended by about a hundred participants from over 50 Missions of developing countries, including 20 Ambassadors.

The speakers were referring to attempts now being made by the European Union, Japan and other developed countries to launch a new Round that would expand the mandate of the WTO to include new issues such as investment, competition and government procurement, and possibly labour and environmental standards.

Another priority stressed by the Ambassadors was the need to get some of the developing countries' demands on resolving problems caused by implementing the existing Agreements accepted in the WTO by this year.

WTO rules in areas such as agriculture, intellectual property, investment measures, subsidies and anti-dumping are hampering the ability of developing countries to maintain social and development policies. 

Resolving these problems through reinterpreting or changing the rules is known in WTO jargon as "implementatioin issues." 

Ambassador Halida Miljani of Indonesia said it was important that decisions be made at the WTO on implementation issues even before the Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference at Doha, Qatar, in November. 

Halida said she agreed with previous speakers about the dangers to developing countries from the proposals made by developed countries to introduce new issues in the WTO through a new Round. 

A firm decision was needed by developing countries, for example, on whether investment rules should be under the purview of the WTO.   She said that there were some dangers in the proposed new issues of investment and competition, and there should also be caution over the issue of transparency in government procurement.

Halida also commented that developing countries must be able to stand up to the pressures building up on the new issues and new round, and for that there should be greater collaboration among them to take a common stand.

Ambassador Fayza Aboulnaga of Egypt said implementation issues are the first priority. Despite the continued efforts by developing countries, the result so far on implementation is at best a meagre one.  However, it was an important achievement by developing countries to have successfully put these issues at the heart of the WTO.  Developed countries had acknowledged that implementation issues are real and have to be looked into, and that they are here to stay.

"We succeeded to keep the pressure on implementation issues and did not sucuumb to pressures to push it away or to put in the wider context of a new round,:" she said, adding that a decision on implementation had to be made before Doha.

She also said that more efforts had to be made to improve internal transparency (greater participation of developing countries in the WTO) so that it becomes the order of the day and everyday, and it should be institutionalised in the work of the WTO and not be left to the style of individuals.

Regarding the new issues, Fayza said these should continue to be studied and are not ripe yet for negotiations.  They should be kept out of the Doha meeting, and kept out from being included in a possible new Round.    She said some developing countries had made it clear at the WTO that issues not yet ripe should not be part of the 4th Ministerial agenda.

She said that in discussions with some developed countries, they had given the view that developing countries are using implementation issues to block a new round, and that "we are asking for the moon.  I countered that in the Uruguay Round (the previous set of negotiations that led to the WTO's creation) we were promised the moon but what have we got today?

"This continuation of attacks on developing countries, this kind of attitude, will undermine the multilateral trade system and could even lead to its collapse."

The priotities for developing countries in the WTO, she said, were to press for the resolution of implementation issues and have tangible results before Doha; to ensure that only issues where there is agreement by all Members are taken to Doha;  that benefits outweigh the costs in any eventual future negotiations (be it a Round or otherwise); and to continue to work in solidarity with the poor and the poorest, including overcoming attempts to divide developing countries.

She added that pressures are being put on developing countries, "but we should not take on more commitments that we cannot digest."

Ambassador Ransford Smith of jamiaca said that the Ministerial meetings should assess the state of world trade.  "We do not see a new round as a priority," he said, countering the arguments put forward that a new Round is needed at bad times as well as good times.

"We don't believe a comprehensive Round could be a desirable development."

In the preparation for the Ministerial Conference, the challenge is to ensure that the process remains transparent, that there is adequate preparation and there should be broad unity among developing countries.  Any negotiations must be on the basis of consensus and should benefit developing countries.

Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe, who chairs the Africa group of countries, agreed that implementation is on top of developing countries' agenda and we need decisions on this before Doha.

There was also an opportunity to use the review of TRIPS (the agreement on intellectual property) to take account of the debate outside the WTO on issues such as the effect of patents on the prices of medicines, so that changes can be made in TRIPS to address the issue of access to medicines.

The lesson from the last Ministerial conference which had collapsed at Seattle is that there is a need for transparency in negotiations, and for respect of the rules and procedures in the WTO, especially at the Ministerial.

There is also need for Geneva based officials of developing countries to speak with one voice with capital based colleagues.  Sometimes, he said, developed countries engaged in discussions with senior officials of developing countries in the capitals, whilst excluding the Geneva based officials, and this should be resisted.

Ambassador Ali Mchumo of Tanzania, who coordinates the least developed countries (LDCs) in the WETO said the major challenge for these countries is to pronounce their response to the proposals for a new round.   "There are intense pressures placed on them to accept a Round, and our response has to be made quickly," he said.

He added  that if a new Round is on the table, it must be a limited Round without the inclusion of new issues as these would impose more burdens on LDCs which would not benefit.

Another priority, said Mchumo, was to insist that special and differential treatment must be implemented whereever they are in the agreements.  And for LDCs a major priority is that issues relating to capacity building be pursued.

Ambassador Narayanan of India said the greatest challenge is to ensure that the rules based WTO system that the WTO is supposed to be is really operating as a rules based system, instead of operating as a power based system (which is dominated by major developed countries).  If developing countries work together, "we can make the system more equitable."

On the issue of New Round, Narayanan said the mandated negotiations (on services and agriculture) and reviews (of some existing agreements) are already a big agenda, and these are enough to consititute a Round. 

It was a fallacy to argue that only with a comprehensive new Round with many subjects could there be a balanced result.  He gave the example of the Uruguay Round which had been comprehensive, but the results were not balanced, and people in developing countries are now facing difficulties, including in their daily lives.

Thus, it was not true that only with a larger agenda could there be a balanced result.

He said if developed countries showed so much insincerity, it would be difficult to build up the WTO.  He cited their reluctance to take account of the crisis on patents and drug prices in the WTO itself, and the lack of interest and attendance by developed countries of a WTO seminar on technology transfer to developing countries.

"Unless the present inequalities are removed in WTO, I do not believe in a New Round," he concluded, adding that developing countries face the challenge of getting their act together so that their collective voice is heard.

Mr C. Raghavan, chief editor of the South North Development Monitor, who chaired the session, said that if the panellists who spoke so clearly here would also similarly speak so plainly at the WTO, he had no doubt that the interests of people in the South would be preserved.

The Secretary General of UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development), Rubens Ricupero, made two main points.  Firstly, the WTO is not the only game in town as there are also developments in the bilateral and regional levels which have effect on developing countries. For example, new issues were being pursued in bilateral agreements.

Secondly, the most important implementation problems facing developing countries stem from the previous efforts to extend the multilateral trade system beyond market access and trade liberalisation issues. 

Thus there are now issues such as intellectual property and investment measures in the WTO, that limit the flexibility of developing countries to have development policies.  This should be kept in mind as discussions proceed in the WTO on inclusion of yet more new issues.

He said that it would be unwise if market access is given to developing countries but then they are deprived from taking advantage of trade opportunities due to new constraints put on them.  "Thus there should be limits placed on expanding the issues of the trading system."