TWN seminar discusses current WTO issues

A recent Third World Network seminar on the WTO, attended by over 100 policy-makers, diplomats and trade experts from over 40 developing countries, took stock of the current situation at the world trade body.  We publish below a report on the conference and reproduce in the pages that follow some of the conference papers.

ORGANISED by the Third World Network, the seminar on ‘Current Developments in the WTO: Perspective of Developing Countries’ was held on 14-15 September at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Apart from reviewing the developments since Seattle, it was also intended to assist in the developing-country Members’ preparations for the upcoming WTO negotiations and discussions, including those within the built-in agenda of mandated negotiations and reviews, as well as the recently-initiated process to consider the implementation problems of developing countries.

Some of the issues highlighted

A.      Opening session

In his keynote speech at the opening session of the seminar, Rubens Ricupero, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that the improved understanding and awareness of developing countries on the developments in the WTO would help them prepare for the upcoming negotiations. However, he called attention to developments taking place beyond the WTO context, such as bilateral and regional agreements, which also affected the developing countries’ obligations and commitments under the WTO. In this regard, he urged developing countries to prepare for new challenges not only in multilateral negotiations but also in discussions at the  regional and bilateral levels.

Other speakers at the opening session were Chakravarthi Raghavan, Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), and TWN Director Martin Khor.

B.      Strategic view of current WTO negotiations and developing countries’ interests, and the agriculture and services negotiations

The main emphasis in the first three substantive sessions of the seminar was on the mandated negotiations under the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Speaking in the session on ÔStrategic view of current WTO negotiations and developing countries’ interests’, BL Das, former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to GATT, suggested that developing countries should submit proposals on the modalities and guidelines for the agriculture and services negotiations, which should be different from those adopted in the Uruguay Round of talks (which resulted in the establishment of the WTO and its agreements) in order to avoid a repeat of and to effectively address the present imbalances and inequities in the AoA and GATS.

In the session on agriculture negotiations, speakers and participants highlighted the many imbalances in the Agriculture Agreement. The AoA allows continued high levels of subsidies and protection in the developed countries, whilst the flexibility of developing countries to promote or defend the interests of small farmers and food production has been seriously eroded, and the market share of developing countries has not improved. Also highlighted by many participants was the need for the major developed countries to eliminate their subsidies and protection, and for the WTO to operationalise special and differential treatment for developing countries, recognising the latter’s need to have policy flexibility in relation to the AoA’s disciplines on import liberalisation and domestic subsidies on the grounds of protecting the livelihood of small farmers and promoting food security.

Speakers and participants in the session on services negotiations pointed to the imbalances in GATS and in developments of the past several years in the area of services, and the adverse implications of some proposals or initiatives by developed countries, such as a change in the Agreement’s architecture, the use of ‘domestic regulations’ and the ‘cluster approach’ to accelerate services liberalisation in developing countries. Also stressed was the absence of (and need for) an assessment of the effects of services liberalisation over the past five years, and adequate data (and its correct presentation) on services trade to enable such an assessment as well as meaningful negotiations.

C.      Implementation issues

Implementation issues were discussed in a panel which comprised Amb. Fayza Aboulnaga of Egypt, T Chifamba of the Zimbabwe Mission, Munir Ahmad from the International Textiles and Clothing Bureau and Yilmaz Akyuz of UNCTAD. A major theme  addressed in the discussions related to the problems and lack of benefits arising from the Uruguay Round agreements. Speakers and participants dealt with the options that developing countries have to bring up the need to correct the situation in the forthcoming talks at the WTO on implementation. Dr Akyuz pointed out that the implementation problems should also be considered from an economic perspective. Although many developing countries are facing structural balance-of-payments deficits and problems, the WTO agreements only allow safeguard provisions to deal with BOP problems as temporary measures. This situation would not allow developing countries to achieve stable growth rates, thus affecting the viability of the trading system.

D.      TRIPS, TRIMs, dispute settlement and new issues

The session on TRIPS focused on the ongoing review of Article 27.3(b) of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) (which requires patents on certain life forms) as well as other key issues relating to the Agreement. The presenters in the session discussed the political, legal and scientific arguments against patents on biological materials and life forms, and the impact of such patenting on developing countries. The lack of technology transfer was also stressed, as was the point that the TRIPS Agreement hindered access to technology. In a separate session, Carlos Correa, an academic and expert on intellectual property issues, highlighted some recent decisions of the WTO’s dispute settlement panels and Appellate Body on intellectual property rights and the TRIPS Agreement, and their implications for developing countries.

The discussion in the following session on TRIMs centred on the difficulties faced by developing countries in fulfilling the obligations of the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) and the need to legitimise these countries’ need to make use of investment measures to realise developmental and national objectives. Participants agreed that there should not be any expansion of TRIMs, be it through additions to the list of measures or performance requirements covered by the Agreement or through rolling forward with negotiations on investment policy and rules.

In the session on the dispute settlement system, SUNS Chief Editor C Raghavan spoke about the deficiencies and flaws of the system, and the implications for developing countries. Other issues, including the encroachment of panels and the Appellate Body on functions that belong to the WTO General Council, the absence of an agreed negotiating history of the Uruguay Round agreements, and the role of the WTO secretariat, were also brought up in the discussions.

The implications for developing countries of proposals (mainly from developed countries) to introduce investment, competition, government procurement, labour and electronic commerce into the ambit of the multilateral trading system were considered in the session on proposed new issues. The speakers stressed the need to avoid upgrading working-group discussions on such issues to the level of negotiations. The WTO, they maintained, should focus on redressing the implementation problems instead of injecting new issues which would overload the multilateral trade system and also significantly add on to the existing imbalances that work against developing countries’ interests.

E.      Panel on current issues in the WTO

The final substantive session of the seminar was a panel discussion on ‘Current issues in the WTO’. The speakers on this panel were the Ambassadors of Malaysia, India, Jamaica and Mauritius. Among the themes that emerged in the discussion included the need for developing countries to coordinate effectively in WTO negotiations in order to correct the present imbalances in the multilateral trading system and to address their implementation problems. The panellists also expressed concerns regarding the introduction of new issues and the launching of a new round of trade talks at the WTO.

F.      Closing session

The closing session was addressed by B L Das, who presented views on the current state of affairs, based on what had transpired during the seminar, and on the options for developing countries in the forthcoming negotiations. Martin Khor, on behalf of the Third World Network, gave a brief summary of the main points raised during the seminar, and thanked the speakers and participants for their contributions.                                     

A list of the seminar and background papers has been posted on the Third World Network website <>.