Africa: NGOs ask governments to reject new trade round

by Cecilia Oh

Accra, September 5 (TWN) -- The African Trade Network, a grouping of trade unions, social movements, citizen groups and non-governmental organisations in African countries, have called for a moratorium on negotiations on new issues or expanding scope and powers of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

African governments should instead focus on review and rectification of the deficiencies in the trading system and the WTO regime itself, the NGOs said in a joint statement issued here after a four-day meeting.

The NGO groups called on African governments to firmly reject the proposals by developed countries for negotiating new issues through the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle.

The new issues should be rejected in order to protect the national sovereignty and development options of the African countries. Instead of a new round of talks, which will involve the inclusion of new issues within the WTO ambit, the group urged a review of existing WTO agreements and an assessment of the WTO system.

Representatives of groups in the African Trade Network met here at a meeting organised by the Third World Network Africa Secretariat, on August 31 - September 3 to discuss the implications of a new round for African countries. The African Trade Network comprises national and regional organisations, including the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), ISODEC (Ghana), ENDA (Senegal), ILRIG (South Africa), IRED, MWENGO (Zimbabwe) and the International South North Group (Zimbabwe).

"The African Trade Network is committed to campaign against the new round and the proposals to inject new issues, such as investment, government procurement, competition policy and the reduction of industrial tariffs into the negotiations at Seattle," said Dr Yao Graham, the Network's coordinator.

"In this, we join the worldwide campaign of international civil society against the proposed Millennium Round", he added.

In the joint statement finalised at the end of the meeting, the groups said that the WTO and its agreements have been used to prise open developing country markets for the benefit of transnational corporations (TNCs) - with devastating effect on the national economies, workers, farmers, women and the environment in Africa.

"This has contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich few; whilst increasing poverty for the majority of the world's population; and fostering unsustainable patterns of production and consumption," said the statement.

The Network members stressed that they opposed any attempt to expand the WTO's powers through a new comprehensive Round, or the introduction of new issues such as investment, competition and government procurement.

"The present Working Groups to study these issues should continue their work, or be closed down," said the statement. "They must not be upgraded into negotiating groups for new agreements."

It added: "We believe that proposals by EU, Japan and others to negotiate an Investment Agreement are attempts to transfer the utterly discredited MAI from the OECD to the WTO. This should be firmly resisted and rejected.

"We also believe that government procurement decisions (especially giving preference to local firms) are sovereign rights of our African countries and should not be brought into the WTO. Further, competition policy and law should be domestic issues and not be subjected to WTO disciplines."

The Network members also said they were opposed to a new round of industrial tariff reductions which had been proposed by many developed countries.

"On proposals to pressure countries to further cut industrial tariffs, we wish to state that African countries have already drastically reduced our tariffs (especially under structural adjustment programmes) and this has led to the closure of local enterprises and to deindustrialization in the Africa region," said the statement.

"The WTO should not be used to lock in and further reduce industrial tariffs in Africa and the South. We thus reject another round of industrial tariff cuts. Instead the North should cut its tariff peaks in products exported by the South."

The joint statement also highlighted the need for action to address the erosion of the special and differential rights of developing countries. The NGOs called on developing countries, particularly African countries, to defend, exercise and expand the scope of these rights in the WTO, in order to ensure the protection of their development needs and aims.

"Special and differential rights are principles, which are firmly established within GATT, in order to correct the imbalances of the system that work against developing countries," said the statement. "There have been increasing pressures since the Uruguay Round to limit the scope and significance of these rights.

"These rights must be reasserted as existing rights, which are necessary for the fair and equitable operation of the multilateral trading system. They are not 'favours' granted to the developing countries. Developing countries must see these rights as necessary to develop their capacities and to promote the interests of their people within the multilateral trading system."

The statement also outlined some of the changes which should be made to existing WTO agreements to correct the inequities and imbalances in the agreements.

Article 27.3(b) of the TRIPS Agreement should be reformulated to exclude the patenting of life forms, in order to stop and prevent the theft of biological resources and traditional knowledge of the African countries and their people.

The Network expressed support for the African Group position on the review of the TRIPS Agreement, which had been submitted to the WTO General Council.

Referring to the African Group's proposals to review and clarify Article 27.3(b), the statement said: "We call on African political leaders and diplomats in each country to stand firm in their position and to further develop this position with concrete proposals to prohibit patenting of life forms and to ensure the protection of traditional knowledge and the rights of local communities over biological resources."

On the Agriculture Agreement, the statement noted that in African countries, small farmers form the major part of the population and their livelihoods and products are the main basis of Third World economies.

"These are threatened by agriculture liberalisation under the Agriculture Agreement," said the statement. "Therefore, in developing countries, food production for domestic consumption, and measures and policies adopted for the protection of small farmers should be exempt from the Agriculture Agreement's disciplines on import liberalisation, domestic support and subsidies."

On the review of the TRIMS Agreement, the statement called for an amendment of the agreement to allow developing countries the right to have 'local content' policy (i.e. to require firms or projects to use a certain minimum amount of local materials) so as to help development of domestic economic activity and conserve scarce foreign exchange.

"In addition, the developing countries should be allowed to take measures for balancing the flow of foreign exchange. Moreover, no new investment measures should be added to the list in the TRIMS Agreement, nor should there be any expansion of the scope of the agreement to cover investment and competition policy."

The statement added that the WTO system, rules and procedures are undemocratic, nontransparent and non-accountable and have operated to marginalise the majority of the world's people.

"There is lack of transparency in negotiations and decision- making in WTO - for most developing-country members of WTO and for the public and Parliaments in all member countries," said the statement.

"We urge that the Seattle Ministerial Conference make decisions to make the WTO system more open, transparent and participatory to developing countries, parliaments and civil society." (SUNS4504)

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