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High-level African meet against negotiating new issues at WTO

by Martin Khor

Addis Ababa 2 July 2001 - - A high-level meeting of African trade negotiators has concluded that most African countries are not in a position to agree to launch negotiations at the World Trade Organization on new issues, including investment, competition policy, trade facilitation, transparency in government procurement, environment and electronic commerce.

Among the reasons noted by the African negotiators and experts during the meeting, held as part of the African preparatory process for the fourth WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, is that these issues are not within the WTO’s competence for developing multilateral rules. Moreover, these issues would add more obligations, would overload the WTO agenda, and the proposals from the proponents lack clarity.

The African Members are not convinced that negotiations in these areas would benefit African countries.

These were among the key points in the “Conclusions and Recommendations” of the meeting, held on 26-29 June, and attended by 120 participants from 30 African countries as well as representatives from African regional organisations and from international agencies. The African participants mainly comprised several Ambassadors and other diplomats based in Geneva, as well as senior trade officials based in capitals.

The meeting was jointly organised by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in collaboration with UNCTAD, the African Economic Research Consortium and the WTO. It was held in the UN Conference Centre at the ECA headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

According to an aide-memoire of the organisers, the objective of the meeting was to provide a forum for the Geneva-based African trade negotiators and their counterparts in Brussels and the capitals, as well as researchers, to deliberate on issues of major concern to African countries in the multilateral trading system, and to share views on preparations for the Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference.

The outcome of the meeting will also be transmitted to the meeting of OAU/AEC Ministers of Trade to be held in Abuja, Nigeria on 17-21 September.

On 29 June, the final day of the meeting, the participants held a lengthy and spirited debate on a document containing the Draft Conclusions and Recommendations of the meeting.

In a section on “New Issues”, the document that was adopted said:

“The meeting considered the status of both the Singapore issues (investment, competition policy, trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement), and other issues that have been proposed by some members of the WTO for possible inclusion in the agenda for the Doha Ministerial Conference.  These other issues include environment and e-commerce.

“Despite the insistence by those members, there is no consensus to negotiate and set up rules in these areas in the WTO. Among the reasons noted for this during the Meeting are that:

(a)  These issues are not within WTO competence in developing multilateral rules.

(b)  Members are not convinced that negotiations in these areas would deliver benefits to African countries. © These issues would add more burden of obligations, while the problems of implementing the Uruguay Round Agreements continue. (d) These issues would overload the WTO agenda. (e) The proposals from the proponents and their implications lack clarity.

“The meeting also noted that discussions in the Working Group (on the Singapore issues) have not been completed. For all these reasons, most African countries are not in a position to agree to launch negotiations in these areas. Rather, they are of the view that the study exercise should continue.”

The statement added on e-commerce, that any consideration of the moratorium for imposing customs duties will be predicated on the provision of adequate infrastructural support for Africa, and that this should be reviewed at the Fifth Ministerial Conference.

While the African group recognised the importance of e-commerce, it need not be linked to developing multilateral rules in the WTO context, the statement added..

The statement also said that there has to be a consensus regarding negotiations on industrial tariffs. Such a consensus must include key elements, such as tariff peaks, tariff escalation and the establishment of meaningful provision of special and differential treatment measures for developing countries with a view to promoting industrial development in Africa.

It added that there was a view that it may be important to frame an approach that accommodate some concerns in these areas in preparing for the possibility that these issues may emerge on the Doha agenda.

In another section, on “future strategy”, the statement noted that Africa must maintain its unity in multilateral trade negotiations. “In the light of problems of transparency and participation that have been experienced in the past, the Director General and the Chairman of the General Council of the WTO were requested to ensure that African member states are fully represented in all formal and informal meetings and consultations at the WTO. The Coordinator of the WTO African Group was asked to convey this view.”

In a section on implementation issues, the statement said it was widely recognised that more progress is required to address fully implementation issues and concerns. Many Africa countries continue to face difficulties in adapting their national laws and regulations and improving their institutional capacity to meet their WTO obligations.

“Further emphasis was put on the need to address the asymmetries and imbalances in a number of WTO Agreements. It was also stressed that African countries should continue to seek the effective implementation of obligations by developed countries, especially those relating to special and differential treatment measures for developing countries.”

Other sections in the document cover action in favour of LDCs, agriculture, services, coordination with the ACP/EU partnership agreement negotiations, Africa’s positive agenda and the challenges of mainstreaming trade in development.

Among the participants at the meeting were the Coordinator of the African Group in the WTO, Zimbabwe’s Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku; coordinator of the LDC group in WTO, Tanzanian Ambassador, Ali Mchumo; and other Geneva-based

Ambassadors and senior diplomats from several countries, as well as senior officials from African capitals. Many senior officials from the ECA and the OAU were also present, as were representatives from UNCTAD and WTO secretariats. – SUNS4928

About the writer: Martin Khor is Director of the Third World Network.

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