ACP countries issue a common position on Doha Ministerial

Brussels, 6 Nov (Yash Tandon*) - The ACP Ministers responsible for trade met on 5-6 November in Brussels to consider their position on the 4th WTO Ministerial Conference at Doha, Qatar.

The meeting was preceded by two days of deliberations by the officials of the ACP countries who met to consider a draft prepared by the ACP Secretariat on the Doha Ministerial, as well as to consider the Plan for Action for the Cotonou Agreement.

The latter item took little time, since the more urgent and important item on the agenda was to consider the draft for Doha. The draft was considered over a period of two days, at the end of which, the officials agreed to finalise it for presentation to their Ministers, who adopted it on 6 November.

In substance, the ACP endorsed and reiterated the position that African and Least Developed countries have generally taken on Doha.

The ACP Declaration has a number of features in common with the Abuja Declaration of the OAU, and the Zanzibar Declaration of the LDCs. One is to insist that the WTO must heed their repeated demands on the implementation issue.

The Declaration urged that “firm decisions” are taken at Doha or “no later than the end of 2002” on the outstanding implementation issues. In the meeting itself, Ministers expressed their frustration and dissatisfaction at the slow pace at which these issues are cleared in the WTO, and the low priority that the WTO seems to have given these issues.

The second is that the Singapore issues (trade and investment, trade and competition policy, transparency in government procurement, and trade facilitation) remain subject to continuing study under the WTO and other relevant international bodies, and that negotiations on these may begin only on the basis of “an explicit consensus decision” by the WTO members.

The ACP Declaration comes out strongly on the TRIPS issue. In essence, it is an endorsement of the African initiative on this matter, forcefully argued by the Chairman of the WTO Committee on TRIPS, Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe.

Its most important point reaffirmed that “nothing in the TRIPS Agreement shall prevent governments from taking measures for protecting public health and nutrition...” Members were insistent that the flexibility of interpretation be maintained in relation to TRIPS such that the right of ACP countries to regulate their public health regime, including “access to affordable medicines” is not impaired.

On Trade Facilitation and Industrial Tariffs, the ministers, similarly, argued that these should not become issues for negotiations at Doha.

On regional trade arrangements, the ACP Declaration recognised that these can be “complementary” to the MTS, and that such arrangements among the developed countries “should not discriminate against the interests of developing countries.”

The Ministers were particularly disappointed, and indeed noted “with great concern” that the WTO has delayed the waiver for the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement (the Cotonou Agreement). The ACP Declaration urged that “the waiver be granted at Doha”.

Another remarkable aspect of the ACP Conference, besides the Declaration itself, was the interaction between the ACP Ministers and two, among other, visiting dignitaries - Mr. Michael Moore, the Director-General of the WTO, and Mr. Pascal Lamy, the EU Trade Commissioner.

Both of them addressed the Ministers about the importance of the new round of trade negotiations, and argued that a “new round” would be good not only for the world economy, which is getting deeper into recession, but also good for the ACP, and generally, the developing countries. Both also assumed that a new round was going to be inaugurated at Doha.

In response to the speech by Mike Moore, Mr. Assad Shoman, Foreign Minister of Belize, speaking “on behalf of the Caribbean countries”, told the Director-General in plain words that: “We are not happy” with “what has passed for preparatory negotiations at the WTO.”

He went on to say that: “We feel we are being coerced into a new round of trade negotiations designed to benefit others even before we have seen the benefits to us of the last round.”

Elaborating further, he said, “We looked for the implementation of old commitments; but nothing came. We looked for a ‘Development Round’ - if we were to contemplate a new round at all; but we have looked in vain...”

He expressed the developing countries’ diminishing confidence in the WTO. “For the banana-producing countries of the Caribbean,” the Minister added, “the WTO is now more popular with our graffiti artists than even the IMF. You need to understand, Director-General, that our faith in WTO processes is less than robust.”

Mr. Shoman was particularly scathing in his attack on the processes leading to the draft declaration issued by the chairman of the General Council.

“We have serious problems,” he said, “with the procedure which is resulting in sending a distorted and misleading draft Ministerial Declaration to the Fourth Ministerial.”

He went on to say, “I must share Caribbean concerns about going forward with this meeting now. We want to move on to the 4th Ministerial when we stand a chance of reaching a consensus among WTO member countries on the way forward. Is that now? Help us to answer that question realistically in order to avoid what we fear might be a terrible mistake that could hurt not only us but also the WTO itself.”

In answer, Mr. Moore said that the Minister was less than fair, that some progress had already been made on the implementation issue, and that the processes in the WTO were open and transparent.

Then followed an address by Pascal Lamy, the Trade Commissioner of the European Union.

The most critical part of his speech was when he promised 50 million Euro to the ACP countries in a language that made the offer sound like a condition to the ACP agreeing to a new round. This remark, which in an earlier era would have been greeted with claps and beaming smiles, was met with jeering and hissing from several Ministers and the assembled delegates that made clear the message that the ACP countries are not there for sale.

Mr. Lamy was visibly taken aback at this mocking and derisive response to what he might have thought was a generous gesture to the ACP from the EU.

The Botswana Minister of Trade and Industry, one of the vice-chairmen of the 4th Ministerial, asked Mr. Lamy point-blank: “Is this offer, Mr. Lamy, conditional on our agreeing to go along with a new round?”

In response, Lamy was at pains to correct any misunderstanding he might have caused, and he said that the offer of Euro 50 million was unconditional.

But the expressions on the faces of the ACP ministers made it clear that they were not impressed.

Outside the meeting, some of them expressed a sense of humiliation at being so treated by Mr. Lamy. “What is Euro 50m distributed among 76 ACP countries?” one of them queried. “How long are they going to lure us with money to chain us to conditions we cannot find acceptable?” said another.

From the ACP Conference it is clear that the poor countries of the world are in no mood to sacrifice their puny sovereignties to the god of free trade.

The Ministers made repeated references to the “double standards” the developed countries were maintaining in relation to the multilateral trading system, and complained again and again that the developed industrialised countries do not listen to the voices of the developing countries.

The ACP Declaration advised the developed countries that if they wanted to create “confidence in the Organisation (the WTO) and the Multilateral Trading System”, they must then “guarantee that the process of consultation and decision-making in the WTO is transparent and inclusive, and the procedures are clearly spelt out”.

For good measure, the Declaration added, “We emphasise that the decision-making process at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha should also be transparent and inclusive.”

(* Mr Yash Tandon, the Director of Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Initiative, SEATINI, sent this contribution to the SUNS.) – SUNS5006

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