WTO proposals fail to redress implementation grievances of developing countries

Developing countries have severely criticised the package of proposals put forward by the Chairman of the WTO General Council and the Director-General of the WTO to resolve the problems faced by developing countries in implementing some of the existing WTO agreements.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

A RANGE of developing countries spoke in an informal General Council session on implementation issues on 1 October, giving mostly a very negative view of the package of proposals put forward by the Chairman of the General Council Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China and the Director-General of the WTO Mike Moore, and in effect indicating that the package would not remove roadblocks to a successful Fourth Ministerial Conference at Doha.

The package was given out to delegations on 26 September along with a draft text by Harbinson for a Ministerial Declaration, which would in effect launch a new round of trade negotiations at Doha with an open-ended agenda. [NB: This reference is to the first, unrevised draft Ministerial Declaration. - Editor]

At the end of the discussions in the informal meeting on the Harbinson-Moore draft, as not one of the 40-50 countries who spoke (individually or as groups) had expressed support and satisfaction (with perhaps only Morocco viewing the draft as a basis for further work), Harbinson announced that the formal General Council Special Session (initially scheduled for 3 October) to adopt Annex I of the draft decision and recommend Annex II to the Fourth Ministerial, would be postponed for further consultations towards a consensus.

The Harbinson-Moore package, Annex I of which contains decisions to be taken by the General Council immediately and whose Annex II lists recommendations for ministers to act upon at Doha, is an ‘empty package’ without any substantive content of benefit to developing countries.

Developing countries had first raised the implementation problems in the run-up to the First Ministerial at Singapore in 1996. However, the views put forward at that Ministerial were dismissed with the argument that the ministers’ raising these in their speeches had ended the consideration of that agenda item. At the Second Ministerial in Geneva in 1998, the concerns and complaints of the developing countries under the ‘implementation’ rubric were answered by the then US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky with the remark ‘you implement your commitments and we will implement ours’.

The developing countries went on to put forward detailed proposals on the implementation issues in the run-up to the Third Ministerial in Seattle in 1999. Much against the wishes of the industrialised world and the WTO secretariat, these found their way into the draft Ministerial Declaration, under paras 21 (decisions to be taken by ministers at Seattle) and 22  (decisions to be taken in the next year).

After the Seattle debacle (which resulted in no declaration ultimately being adopted by that Ministerial), there was talk of ‘confidence-building measures’. High on this agenda were the implementation issues, as well as internal transparency and participation of all the WTO Members in decision-making (as an antithesis to the hitherto GATT/WTO thesis of arriving at decisions via the secretive and exclusive ‘green room’ process).

The current draft Ministerial Declaration for Doha has some references to transparency and participation which are, however, without any real operational content. And on implementation it is equally empty.

Considering that the issues raised by developing countries under the rubric of implementation have been before the WTO since 1996 in one form or another (including the very detailed proposals put forward by the developing countries in 1999), the content of the Harbinson-Moore package is more in the nature of a mountain in labour producing not even the proverbial mouse but a ‘dead mouse’ which, if left too long on the table, would begin to stink in the nostrils of the public of the developing world.

At the informal General Council meeting on 1 October, a number of countries spoke up viewing the package as ‘very disappointing’ and lacking in any substantive content in its Annex I.

Not only the members of the Like-Minded Group of developing countries, but many others too, spoke to convey their disappointment. Some of them called for the two Annexes to be merged and adopted at the General Council as decisions even before Doha, with Doha filling in the gaps on the core points of developing-country positions and proposals on implementation.

Only the US and perhaps the EC viewed the package as registering significant progress on these issues at the WTO and as showing that ‘development issues’ would be addressed upfront at the trade body.

Morocco, one of the sponsors of the so-called ‘submarine group’ paper (which had been put forward by a group of seven Member countries before the August summer break and which proposed a number of issues, mostly of a procedural nature, on which decisions could be taken at the General Council), while expressing dissatisfaction at the Harbinson-Moore package, seemed to view it as providing a good basis for further work.

Jamaica, Bangladesh (speaking for the LDC group), Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Cuba, Honduras and Zimbabwe spoke making clear their view that Annex I of the Harbinson-Moore paper was empty of content and lacked any substantive decisions.  They wanted the proposals for Doha to be brought into Annex I and decisions taken on them with some improved language, and the remaining core issues to be addressed and decided upon by the ministers at Doha.

Hong Kong China suggested that some of the items in Annex II should be brought up into Annex I (and decided now). Brazil also took a similar stand.

The LDCs found the Harbinson-Moore draft to be ‘very disappointing’ and also ‘imbalanced’ in that it had not taken on board many of the issues of concern to LDCs or proposals made by them. Though there were many points listed in Annexes I and II, a close reading showed that on only a few points is there anything of real substance in the form of changes or commitments, and in most of the points,  ‘there is only mention of ‘best endeavours’ and ‘taking note’ of issues.’

‘The draft has neglected many of the implementation issues raised by LDCs, either by ignoring them totally or by treating them very lightly and in a manner devoid of substance,’ Bangladesh further complained on behalf of the LDCs.

Although it had been agreed that the implementation issues would be resolved before Doha, ‘yet we find that most of the important issues are either placed in Annex II (to be decided in Doha) or are even absent from the draft’.

‘We therefore must register our deep disappointment and call on the Chairman to work hard and do better justice to the issues and our concerns,’ the LDCs added.

In its detailed comments, a text of which was circulated inside and outside the General Council, India expressed its ‘profound disappointment and dismay’ that even at this late stage, the major trading partners were unwilling to show the required degree of political will and flexibility.

The package, India said, had not effectively addressed core concerns of developing countries in certain of the implementation proposals. In others, the text of the decisions in several areas were ‘once more in the nature of best-endeavour clauses’. Several other decisions were in the form of referral to subsidiary bodies whose consideration would stretch into well after Doha. And crucial concerns of developing countries on implementation not figuring in Annex I or II were being sought to be addressed in the course of a future work programme whose parameters had not been defined.

While it found itself unable, despite its best efforts, to be positive about the Harbinson-Moore text, said India, it would, in a ‘constructive spirit’, offer some detailed comments on its concerns and scope for resolution in the current draft and the critical issues that had not found any place in the text. India urged Harbinson to undertake more intensive consultations on the implementation issues to improve the language in some of the items in Annexes I and II, and to identify possible decisions in respect of the items not covered by the draft decision.

‘Our efforts should be to implement the 3 May 2000 decision of the General Council in letter and spirit,’ suggested India.

India also referred to the covering note to the draft implementation decision put forward on behalf of Harbinson and Moore which said that both ‘believe that this draft represents a credible effort to move the implementation debate to a new level of understanding’.

The significance of this remark, India said, was not clear. The 3 May 2000 decision envisaged resolution of all implementation issues and concerns at the latest by the Fourth Ministerial Conference, and it was surprising that at this point of time they should be only ‘moving the implementation debate to a new level of understanding’.

The proposals of the developing countries had been on the table for more than three years and any number of formal and informal consultations had  been  organised regarding  the proposals; there could not hence be ‘any question of lack of understanding’. While the Chairman and the Director-General had made extraordinary efforts to achieve results, one cannot escape the conclusion that the results achieved so far are far from credible.                                           

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS - issue no. 4979), of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.