by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 24 Nov 99 -- With just a few days to go before the Seattle Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization, the Informal Group of Developing Countries (IGDC) has called for "more flexibility' by all WTO Members to enable a solution to the existing divergences.

In a press communique issued here, the IGDC cautions against portraying the current impasse as "a purely North-South conflict, as some have wanted to portray it."

Though the "purely North-South" (emphasis added) phrase implied that there was a North-South conflict too, at his press conference WTO head Mike Moore cited it as proof there was no developed-developing country conflict.

The IGDC communique said: "There are some important divergences among industrialized countries, which have nothing to do with the developing countries. This is why the only way to advance is through more flexibility by the totality of the WTO Membership, not only by developing countries, and to take into account the interests of all Members, not only those of industrialised countries."

Developing countries have acted in a responsible and realistic manner from the beginning of the preparatory process at the Second WTO Ministerial Conference held in Geneva in May 1998, the note points out.

At that conference, many developing countries expressed their disappointment and concern on the lack of tangible benefits resulting from the Uruguay Round and explained the problems that they had faced as a consequence of the commitments reached in the Round.

However, despite those concerns, it was accepted to consider the continuation of the liberalisation process, in the understanding that an evaluation of the implementation of individual Agreements and the achievement of their objectives would be undertaken an that recommendations would be made to solve implementation problems.

"The evaluation that had been agreed to in the Geneva Ministerial Declaration was never actually achieved," the IGDC points out.

"Notwithstanding the fact that in some cases the lack of compliance on the commitments adopted by developed countries has been very clear, though not necessarily illegal, it has not been possible to reach an agreement as to the lack of compliance on the achievement of the objectives of such commitments. The countries involved have simply opposed any consensus in that regard."

Recommendations to solve the implementation problems, say the developing countries, have also been impossible to achieve. They charge that "Up to now, no true political will to solve these problems has been shown."

"The numerous proposals that developing countries have presented jointly or individually from the beginning of the preparatory process to the Third Ministerial Conference more than a year ago have received unsatisfactory answers in practically all cases. In some instances it was argued that they were not realistic, in others that the Governments could not consider such proposals because their legislation did not allow them to and in the best of cases, that there was a will to give them sympathetic consideration, but only on a case by case basis, in order to extract some additional benefit from developing countries."

On agriculture, the IGDC says there are serious divergences between major exporters of non-subsidised agricultural products and some importing developed countries with high levels of protection and support to the sector.

"For the Seattle Ministerial Conference to be a success, these divergences have to be solved satisfactorily and in accordance with the commitments adopted at the end of the Uruguay Round. Upon resolution of these divergences, it will have to be duly established that developing countries have no interest in the maintenance of export subsidies, which not only distort international trade but also places developing countries in a situation of unfair disadvantage in their own markets. This, without disregarding that the agricultural sector has a strategic importance for the development of the developing countries both internally and from the exporter's or importer's point of view, depending on the country concerned. The opening of markets for export products of developing countries and the attention of the needs of net food importing developing countries, including the least developed ones, are also equally indispensable."

Another aspect of particular concern, says the IGDC, refers to the attempts being made by some Members to introduce issues of non-trade character such as labour standards. The group questions how an issue "so divisive" can help to the success of the next Ministerial Conference.

"The way to deal with this type of issues was definitely settled among Ministers of all WTO Members during the first WTO Ministerial, held in Singapore. Attempts to reopen such agreement to introduce the issue in the WTO are not only unacceptable but also put into question the credibility of those who wish to act in such a way."

That is why the Ministers of the Group of 77 plus China, in their meeting of Marrakech last September, decided to send the following message to the Third WTO Ministerial Conference:

"The Singapore Ministerial Declaration confirmed that ILO is the competent body to set and deal with all issues relating to labour standards. We therefore firmly oppose any linkage between trade and labour standards. We are also against the use of environmental standards as a new form of protectionism. We believe that issues relating to such standards should be dealt with the competent international organizations and not by the WTO."

It is worth clarifying, the IGDC note added, that this issue should not be seen as conflict between North and South or as disregard to the respect for labour standards. There is no doubt that there are countries and important sectors of opinion in the North that share the same concerns of the developing countries. Moreover, in Singapore, all WTO Members renewed their commitment to the observance of internationally recognised core labour standards.

"It is clear that what is truly at stake is if the concessions negotiated under the WTO should be used as a coercive instrument in order to achieve non-trade objectives, and if the rules agreed therein can serve as an excuse for not complying with trade commitments."

The group expressed the hope that these and other problems that have surfaced in the preparatory process would be solved as soon as possible, in order to fulfil what was agreed at the Geneva Ministerial Conference of 1998: to launch a work programme, "including further liberalisation sufficiently broad-based within the WTO framework." (SUNS4559)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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