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Launching a new round under another name?





GENEVA: Developing countries at the WTO appear to favour in-
depth and detailed discussion on the implementation of the
Uruguay Round agreements and the inequities that have become
evident, both due to the way the agreements have been
implemented as well as due to the text itself.

This view was voiced on 5 February, at the informal heads of
delegation meeting of the General Council of the WTO, chaired
by Ambassador Celso Lafer of Brazil, to discuss what was
euphemistically called possible scenarios for the 1998
Ministerial meeting of the WTO.

While there have been a number of small conclaves of
countries to discuss these issues, this would appear to be the
first time that the General Council appears to be seized of the
matter.

Implementation or new issues?


All developing countries, in the discussions on 5 February,
stressed the need for the 1998 Ministerial to deal
substantively with the implementation issues, unlike the pro
forma way in which the Singapore meeting dealt with them (in
plenary speeches of the Ministers).

While the Europeans, Canadians and the major Cairns Group
countries seem to favour the 1998 Ministerial taking some
decisions about the "preparations" for the 1999 Ministerial -
a "euphemism" for decisions about the "next round" - many
others seem to be opposed to any decisions (or even the
Chairman's summing-up) being taken at the 1998 Ministerial
about a possible new round or new work programme or new issues,
with problems of developing countries being sidelined once
again.

The Cairns Group of countries are understandably anxious
about pushing further, the "reform process" in agriculture.

But the EC, a main target, has been privately arguing that
it could not take any steps on further agriculture reform,
unless some of the new issues are also on the agenda -
including, among others, multilateral rules for foreign
investors' right to invest at will anywhere in the world, so-
called competition rules.

Australia, which has been leading the Cairns Group, appears
to have indicated its willingness to go on with this approach,
and get decisions taken at the 1998 Ministerial in May to begin
preparatory work for the new round.

The US position is not clear.

But many developing countries seem to be wary of the idea of
new issues and, in any event, do not want to see any decisions
on this at the Ministerial in 1998.

The developing countries note that in the past several GATT
rounds, their problems were put on the agenda, only to be
brushed aside or put on the back-burner, while accords of
interest to the North were forged. Some of the developing-
country issues of the 1960s still remain on the agenda, without
any actions having been taken on them.

The Singapore Ministerial


And as the Singapore meeting showed, new accords which were
not even envisaged or discussed multilaterally have a sudden
habit of being brought up and railroaded through. The meeting
was dominated by the US-EC drive for an information technology
accord, the new issues broached by the EC and so on, while the
major agenda of that conference, the implementation of the
Uruguay Round agreements, was relegated to speeches of
Ministers in the plenary, where Ministers spoke mostly to empty
chairs - and with no action taken.

Some delegates from the developing world complain that as a
result of the way the secretariat and the chairman of the
various bodies operate, even the normal WTO bodies are unable
to address the implementation problems and how to remedy them.
Many Ambassadors heading these bodies also have other
activities which often take them out of Geneva, complicating
informal meetings of the membership.

In view of this, some developing-country delegates feel that
while no Minister can be prevented from raising any issue at
the Ministerial in his or her speeches (which are to be
circulated and not actually delivered), the entire focus should
be on discussions on implementation of the existing accords and
how to remove the inequities in implementation that have become
evident.

Complicating perhaps the consultations process has been the
efforts of the WTO head, Renato Ruggiero, to be empowered to
undertake such processes, as his predecessors did during the
provisional GATT and its various negotiating rounds. But this
necessarily encroaches on the role of the various WTO bodies,
including the General Council, and the specific jobs assigned
to them in terms of the WTO treaty.

The 5 February meeting is clearly the first of many
discussions that may be needed - and the process seems likely
to be complicated by the fact that most of the developing
countries are "excluded" from the entire informal socalled
bilateral and plurilateral processes of preparations.

Despite the promises in Singapore of transparency in
decision-making and so on, little of it has so far emerged -
beyond the WTO's "web page and sites" where panel rulings and
statements of the WTO head are posted.

This may or may not satisfy the appetite for information
from NGOs - many of whom saw at first hand in Singapore, the
totally non-transparent and non-democratic decision-making
processes of the WTO - but has not met the concerns of most of
the diplomats and delegates who feel "sidelined".

There has been a mushrooming of various groups and conclaves
convened by individual major industrial countries or
collectively by the Quad (Canada, the EC, Japan and the US),
the so-called "invisibles" group, where the Quad member hosting
the meet invites particular developing countries. Some even
decide which member of a regional sub-group should be called to
"represent" that group!

One diplomat from a smaller country has even been talking of
convening an "excluded" group.

There is also a growing view that while informal small
consultations and discussions cannot be ended, there should be
atleast a decision of sorts that issues should first be
broached and brought up at meetings of the WTO bodies,
including the General Council, and only then, if countries want
to hold informal consultations, should they do so.

In a statement to the 5 February informal plenary of the
General Council, Ruggiero presented what he called some
"scenarios", claiming they were based on his bilateral and
plurilateral discussions and consultations.

His responses to some queries brought out that he has been
meeting small groups of delegations over lunches or dinners
hosted by one or another, where the issues of future work
agenda, the EC's idea of a so-called millennium round and so
on, were talked about.

But the question arises whether the WTO head should attend,
even as a guest, such meetings, and participate in moves to
"cook" the agendas. No one appears to have raised this point.

As envisaged, the Ministerial meeting on 18-19 May is to be
followed by a meeting on 20 May for the celebration of the 50th
anniversary of the GATT trading system.

Ruggiero suggested as an agenda for the two-day meeting,
implementation of the work programme and future activities.

In his proposal, the Ministers are to meet on 18 May and
finish discussions in the afternoon (around 17 hours), on the
implementation issues, and then start discussion on "future
activities" - a phrase aimed at getting discussions and
decisions on the next round!

These informal discussions among Ministers, Ruggiero
suggested, should continue on the 19th.

Possible conclusions


As for possible conclusions, Ruggiero envisaged several
scenarios:

* an informal summing up by the Chair on implementation and
future activities, plus a Ministerial decision on how to
prepare for the 1999 Ministerial Conference.
This last is interpreted by several developing countries as
an oblique way of getting decisions at the 1998 Ministerial for
launching a new round of negotiations in 1999.

* a second scenario of Ruggiero's is of an informal summing
up on implementation by the Chair, plus a formal decision on
preparations for the 1999 Ministerial.

* a third scenario is of no Chairman's summing up, but a
formal conclusion.

In the discussions, Pakistan's Ambassador, Munir Akram (who
is also Chair of the informal developing country group) said he
had no difficulty with a short and business-like agenda for the
1998 Ministerial, but that it should focus on implementation
and conclusions reached in a "transparent" way.

Ambassador Mounir Zahran of Egypt voiced a similar position,
and said they were not in a position to reflect on the new
issues raised by some countries.

Trade officials, in briefing the media, said that this was
also the general view of the developing countries.

Australia, the EC and Canada appeared to favour decisions on
preparations for the 1999 Conference - which was taken by
others to mean starting preparations for a new round including
some of the old and the new issues. New Zealand wanted the 50th
anniversary celebratory meeting to lay the foundations for
future negotiations, including in areas like agriculture,
services, government procurement and so on.

Japan was willing to address both implementation and new
issues, and wanted Ministers to be able to address the meeting
(and not merely have speeches circulated), but did not want
decisions.

Turkey suggested that once implementation was discussed, if
there was scope, discussions could be started on the new
issues.

Hong Kong was willing to support any option, but wanted
something on the record. The most important, in its view, was
to tackle the sensitive issues first before new issues like
labour standards were brought up. In Hong Kong's view, issues
of implementation of the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing
should be dealt with first.

Mexico favoured a distinction between the Ministerial
meeting and the 50th anniversary conference celebrations that
should send out a broad message about future negotiations.

South Korea drew a clear distinction between implementation
and future agendas.

India's Ambassador Narayanan said there seemed to a
hierarchy of issues and agendas developing. The implementation
of the Uruguay Round agreements, and the inequities that have
become evident, both in the way the agreements have been
implemented, as well as in their being built into the rules,
were the most important issues that need to be addressed. The
developing countries had received a "raw deal" in the Uruguay
Round accords and in the manner of their implementation, and
these should be set right first.

Any new agenda could wait, and there was no scope for
decisions on these at the 1998 Ministerial. Each Ministerial
Conference should not be engaged in starting preparations for
and decisions at the next Ministerial. This should be the
responsibility of the WTO bodies and the General Council.

According to trade officials, discussions were to have
resumed on 16 February. However, some developing countries note
that the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Trade
and Development Board was to meet in Executive Session on that
day to discuss and make some important decisions, including on
the entire financial and economic crisis in Asia and
elsewhere, and thus the WTO should not schedule any meetings
and create a clash. - (Third World Economics No. 179/180,
16 Feb-15 March 1998)


The above article first appeared in the SUNS of which Chakravarthi
Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

 


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