New WTO round favours industrialized countries

by Gustavo Capdevila

DOHA: The 4th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization on 14 November approved the launch of a new round of global trade-liberalizing talks, which are slated to begin in January and will cover nearly all the issues that the world’s wealthy nations wanted to see included.

After six days of haggling, none of the more than 140 WTO Member states stood in the way of consensus in the Qatar capital, but some countries, like those of the African bloc, expressed reservations about several matters included in the agenda for the new trade talks.

But non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Doha for the conference protested the decision, charging that the new round “will exacerbate poverty and inequality.”

In the preparatory sessions leading up to the Ministerial Conference, the US and European Union had attempted to convince poor countries of the virtues of new negotiations, promising that they would turn into “a development round.” However, one NGO representative charged that “the development round is devoid of development.”

Mike Moore, WTO Director-General, stated that the development dimension could be found in the negotiations on agriculture, facilitation of trade and the application of pending agreements, among others.

Argentine trade negotiator Roberto Lavagna took a more cautious tone, saying he would wait to see how the negotiations play out before deciding whether he would agree with the “development round” moniker.

The new round will be broad-based, covering talks on environment rules, industrial tariffs, implementation of prior accords and intellectual property rights.

Formal negotiations on investment, competition rules, transparency in government procurement, and trade facilitation will be determined by the next Ministerial Conference, to take place in 2003.

Nevertheless, discussion of the agenda and the substantive questions for most of these issues will begin in January.

The Third World Network, an international NGO based in Malaysia, issued a statement saying that the Doha Ministerial Declaration has marked a vast expansion of the WTO mandate and operations and that it is headed “in the wrong direction.” The ministers’ decision in Doha will ultimately cause serious social and economic problems in developing countries and will restrict the right of these nations to adopt the policies or implement the development options they need, says the Third World Network. (The TWN statement is reproduced in full in this issue’s “For the Record.”)

But the NGO delegations generally agreed that the portions of the Ministerial Declaration that refer to pharmaceutical patent rights and access to medications represented one of the few victories the poor countries achieved in Doha. Largely the result of intense pressure from the sub-Saharan Africa bloc, Brazil and India, the Doha declaration recognizes governments’ unrestricted right to adopt effective health policies for their populations - particularly for responding to pandemics like AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.

Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Lafer, who participated in the Doha meet, commented that the resolutions adopted “do not constitute a good accord,” but they do form part of the balance in the multilateral trade system.

Nigerian Trade Minister Mustafa Bello, meanwhile, stated that the African bloc had accepted - with reservations - the decisions taken by the Ministerial Conference regarding negotiations on investment, competition, trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement.

The African nations remain concerned about the WTO approach to environmental questions and to agricultural issues affecting the least developed countries.

The Ministerial Conference was extended by one day due to some fierce opposition to the inclusion of certain points in the new round of trade negotiations.

One of the highlights of the six-day meet was the approval of China’s accession to the WTO. The Asian giant will add its high-growth economy and a market of 1.3 billion people to the global trade system.

WTO chief Moore issued assurances that the new round will be more balanced than the previous series of multilateral trade talks, known as the Uruguay Round (1986-1994), alluding to the fact that the developing countries are better organized this time.

But Michael Bailey, with the humanitarian group Oxfam International, predicted that the new round will overwhelm the negotiating capacities of poor countries and they will be forced to open their markets unconditionally to transnational corporations. (IPS)