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LMG caution against ‘misperceptions’ about new round

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 6 July 2001 - - The perception in the international media about a growing consensus over the push for a new round of trade negotiations to be launched at Doha is not correct, and the membership of the World Trade Organization is far away from a consensus, several ambassadors of the Like-Minded Group of Developing countries at the WTO said Thursday at an interactive dialogue meeting they held with some NGOs and media representatives.

Pakistan’s Ambassador, Mr. Munir Akram, who chaired the session, said the perception in the media was not fully in accord with the reality of the political positions as they were at the current moment, though things could change. Although the US and the EU have come out in favour of a round, if one examined their positions in some detail, one realised the gaps that existed between them in their positions and policies at Seattle, for example, and now, they had not yet been bridged. This exercise may take some time.

As far as the developing countries are concerned, the LMG and others, have concerns over the implementation issues, which are more crystalized now than at Seattle.

The political processes (for a trade round) in at least one of the majors still had a certain ambiguity and one did not know in which direction it would move, said Akram. If there were explicit demands for linking the round and negotiations with labour and environment issues, the prospect of an agreement at Doha would be diminished, if not non-existent.

Earlier, Indonesian ambassador, Mrs. Halida Miljani, said that some members of the LM G did not outright reject the idea of launching a package of negotiations, but they wanted to know what the agenda of such negotiations would be, as well as the parameters of the negotiations. These things must be clear and agreed to before the developing countries could agree to launch a new round.  And there were problems on the new issues (investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation) that countries had in mind when talking of a comprehensive round.

Malaysia’s Amb. Supperamaniam said the fact there was now no consensus at the WTO on the launching of a round. The positions were far apart on whether a round should be launched or not. On many of the subjects and issues, the LMG shared common concerns.

In July, when the General Council is to make an assessment, the reality check, it would be very important to carefully evaluate where the membership was in relation to the agenda for the Doha ministerial. There were the mandated negotiations (in agriculture, services etc), and market access issues which were important to all developing countries. But many of them would need to know what would be included under ‘industrial tariffs’. The developing countries wanted to see real market access in the areas of agriculture and textiles which were promised to them, but which had not taken place so far.

As for the Singapore issues, the LMG was of the common view that they were not in a position or ready to negotiate any rules on these.

The environment issue being proposed was also a very controversial one. It was not that developing countries were opposed to environment protection, but the WTO and existing instruments were more than enough to deal with them. What was being proposed seemed mainly to legitimise protectionist measures under the umbrella of environment protection that some countries wish to take unalterably.

Developing countries as a whole were also united in opposing putting labour standards into the WTO context. These should be dealt with in the ILO. The July General Council meeting would provide a clear benchmark, and they would have come out loud and clear about the Doha ministerial agenda. Unless there was satisfaction for the developing countries and the LMG on some issues of fundamental importance and concern to them, they would not be able to constructively engage in other areas. They were conscious of the fact that the EC and Japan wanted a comprehensive round, “but this is definitely not on.”

Uganda’s Ambassador Nathan Irumba said there was a systemic issue. Before the WTO, ministerial meetings took place rarely, and they were needed to launch negotiations on issues. The WTO was founded to provide a permanent forum of negotiations. Those calling for a new round seemed to be going back on that, and this seemed incongruous for many others. For Uganda as other countries, their views would be guided by what was to be on the agenda of such negotiations, and would it promote development. The industrial world says it wants to launch a ‘development round’, but there was little in it to contribute to development, but rather to try and limit the space for development.

Earlier, Akram said the LMG and other developing countries placed the highest priority on a positive response to the concerns they had raised on implementation issues, and some of the items there represented the major part of the international trade of their countries.

“Unless there are positive responses to it, there will not be too much in it for us, as far as future negotiations are concerned,” he said. The developing countries like the LMG had also a number of concerns on the mandated on- going negotiations, for example a development box in agriculture, tariff peaks and tariff escalations, S&D treatment, transfer of technology, finance and debt and their relationships to trade.

There was also the issue of TRIPS and Public Health, on which developing countries wanted, not some preambular language, but operative decisions at Doha making clear that developing countries had full flexibility to use the instruments of the TRIPS to ensure medicines at affordable costs for their public, and without fear of being dragged before dispute panels and the like.

Egypt’s Amb. Mrs. Fayza Aboulnaga said the TRIPS and public health issue was of fundamental importance to all the developing countries and a right balance had to be struck between public policy objectives and private profits. The provisions of Articles 7 and 8 set out the objectives and principles, but there were attempts to delink them from the other provisions of the TRIPS agreement.  This was not acceptable.

Also of concern to developing countries are the issues relating to 27.3 of the TRIPS, which had attracted a lot of attention, Art. 71 of the TRIPS containing provisions on review of TRIPS in the light of experience of implementation - a review process that some were trying to restrict. There should be ‘due restraint’ and no disputes raised under TRIPS. The TRIPS and other such agreements were rushed through at the end and were raising problems not foreseen then, creating imbalances.

Amb Federico Cuello of the Dominican Republic also stressed the highest priority for actions at Doha on TRIPS and Public Health.

Aboulnaga said that the developing countries had already paid a price twice on their issues - once during the Tokyo Round and the second time in the Uruguay Round - and they had still not gained or benefited. They were now being asked to pay the price a third time by going into another round and with new issues, and for another round of unkept promises. This was not acceptable.

Implementation issues were fundamental, and their solution could not be linked in any way to any new round. They need to be addressed on their merits.

When all the ambassadors complained of the ‘spin’ being put on a new round and consensus, this writer pointed out that in fact the spin was being put by the WTO Director-General and the secretariat. When the WTO agreement was reached in 1993, the negotiators were unanimous in agreeing that the WTO director-general should not have the power that heads of international secretariats had in proposing or initiating moves or agendas, but the secretariat should do only what the members wanted it to do. Nevertheless, while there was this division inside the WTO, the DG was criss-crossing the world promoting a new round, and writing letters and talking to ministers in countries about how a new round was necessary, and how investment rules would benefit them - in effect promoting the EC agenda. This had attracted a lot of criticism in countries and from NGOs, but does not seem to have figured at the General Council itself.

A number of ambassadors said that they had taken it up with Mr. Moore who had said that he was representing his individual view in this matter.

“Our concern at the moment is to address the substance, and not the form,” another ambassador remarked. “The Director-General’s statements do not influence our positions, although they may have an effect on public perceptions. The reality is that negotiations are among member states, and their positions remain what they are.”

On the environment issue, several of the members the in the developing world were even more aware of the need to protect the environment. But the question remained how it should be dealt with at the WTO. The existing provisions and safeguards were sufficient, and the attempts to have more rules were merely aimed at legitimising the protectionist actions that some wanted to take under the name of environment.

Developing countries were not ready to accept it.

On whether developing countries would not be better off by bringing labour into the WTO, considering their own demands on ‘movement of natural persons’, the Indian ambassador, Mr S. Narayanan said there should be no confusion on the position of developing countries about labour, the question of linking trade and labour standards, and the issue of ‘labour services’. India itself had raised the last question in the context of demands on investment issues, that the advanced countries wanted freedom of movement for capital, but were not willing to provide it for labour, another factor of production. But this was entirely difference from linking trade and labour standards at the WTO and aimed at enabling protectionist measures.

On environment, developing countries clearly recognized the need to protect the environment, and they were taking part in several multilateral processes for this, whereas on climate change some were now going back. The WTO committee on trade and environment had a comprehensive and balanced agenda. But without completing it, some wanted some special provisions to enable actions to be taken to restrain in the name of environment. This was nothing more than an attempt to legitimise their protectionist actions.

It was true that while there was a stalemate in framing rules, the dispute panels and the appellate body was moving in to interpret and legislate. But the appellate body had also been paying heed to the views of the members (as in regard to their ‘inviting’ NGO amicus briefs). The entire role and situation was evolving.

The problems of the negative consensus in adopting panel and appellate body rulings, and the effect of panels and appellate body creating new rules through interpretation was engaging the collective attention of the membership. It was a larger systemic issue that would be addressed from a collective viewpoint.

Amb Aboulnaga noted that sometime back there was no enthusiasm to tackle labour at the ILO. There was now a sudden enthusiasm, and this seemed related to the fact that they took action and imposed sanctions on Myanmar. The situation had to be studied carefully, and there was some concern among many countries that the idea would appear to be to use the ILO to raise the issues, and then bring it to the WTO for sanctions. The developing countries would be opposed to such tactics.

Asked about the choices for Doha - between an ministerial meeting ala Singapore to make assessments, launching or working towards launching a new round, or a work programme involving Singapore issues - Akram said it was an evolving situation that would have to be tackled in the preparatory process.

In July end they would have to undertake a reality check on the basis of the checklist of issues put forward by the General Council Chair. If by end of July, there was little movement on implementation or convergence on other issues, “it is obvious that the level of ambition for Doha has to be lowered, unless we decide to go pell-mell as we did into Seattle, with a document reflecting complete disagreement, hoping somehow we will resolve and reconcile differences and reach an agreement.”

“This time around,” said Akram, “we in the LMG think we should proceed on the basis of a realistic assessment. If by the end of July, there is no movement on issues of importance to developing countries, but convergence on other issues, the level of ambition for Doha will have to be lowered. In that event, Doha could result in some simple declaration for a work programme or other options.”

Federico Cuello said that in addition to implementation, the TRIPS and Public health was a priority, and there should be an understanding providing clarity on a number of questions including the issue of Art. 31 (compulsory licensing) and the issue of Art 39.3 relating to test data. If these issues are sought to be put on a new round or with other issues, the momentum for action would be lost and many, many more lives would be lost in the developing world. – SUNS4931

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

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