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African Ministers for continuing WTO study process on new issues

by Martin Khor

Abuja 24 Sept 2001 - African Ministers of Trade at their conference organised by the Organisation of African Unity have expressed their concern over the added burden of obligations implied by the proposed new issues in the World Trade Organisation, and have called for continuing the study processes in the working groups.

This view of African Ministers is contained in a document, “Africa’s Negotiating Objectives for the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the WTO,” which the Ministers approved at the end of their meeting which took place here on 19-23 September.

In a section on the “Singapore and other issues”, the African Ministers stressed six general factors of “critical importance”: that African countries are not “demandeurs” of multilateral agreements in the new issues; they lack capacity to implement obligations in these issues; most African countries are not convinced that these issues will bring tangible benefits to them; African countries are concerned over the added burden of obligations and of the dangers of overloading the WTO agenda; that there is no consensus among WTO members to launch negotiations in these areas; and that the various working groups are yet to complete their work and thus the study process should continue.

The conclusion to be drawn from this section of the document is that the African countries are not ready to start negotiations on the so-called Singapore issues but instead they would like the working groups on these issues to continue their uncompleted work.

The meeting, officially titled the fourth session of the OAU/African Economic Community Conference of Ministers of Trade, discussed preparations for the WTO’s forthcoming Ministerial meeting in Doha as well as intra Africa trade issues, the ACP-EU Cotonou Partnership Agreement and the implementation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of the United States.

An expert meeting of senior officials (chaired by Nigeria’s Commerce Ministry Permanent Secretary Ms Ammuna Lawan Ali) was held on 19-21 September to review the issues and prepare draft documents, whilst the Meeting of Ministers (which was opened by Nigerian President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, and chaired by Nigerian Commerce Minister, Mustafa Bello) was held on 22 and 23 September.

The meeting was also addressed by WTO Director-General Mike Moore, US Assistant Trade Representative Rosa Whitaker and an Ambassador of the European Commission.  Statements prepared by UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero, and by the chief executives of WIPO, the ACP Group, the Economic Commission of Africa and the OAU were presented on their behalf by their representatives.

The conference ended late on the night of 23 September with the adoption of two documents, the Abuja Ministerial Declaration, and Africa’s Negotiating Objectives for the WTO Fourth Ministerial, and with the understanding that both documents are linked to each other and should be read in conjunction with each other.

In the Ministerial Declaration, the Ministers agreed that: “There is an urgent need for development issues to be put on centre-stage at the WTO. “

“This,” the Ministers said in their declaration, “will require improving real access to developed markets for products and services of export interest to African countries; addressing asymmetries in existing Agreements; enhancing productive capacities, including facilitating the transfer of technology; and improving technical cooperation and capacity building.”

“The objective should be the achievement of global growth and development for all members, while decisively addressing the present inequities in the multilateral trading system,” they added.

The Ministers reaffirmed that special and differential treatment for developing countries is a core principle of the WTO and affirmed their commitment to make S and D provisions meaningful and operational by adopting a Decision at Doha to make them legally binding.

“We reiterate our concern with the imbalances in the WTO Agreement,” the statement continued. “We underscore the difficulties that many African countries face in adapting their laws and regulations and improving their institutional capacities to meet their WTO obligations.”

The Ministers stressed that implementation issues are a priority for African countries in the run-up to the WTO 4th Ministerial and reaffirmed the need to resolve outstanding implementation issues.

The statement also called for full implementation of the Plan of Action of the Third UN conference on LDCs and of the Decision on Measures in favour of LDCs and full operationalization of the Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the reform programme on LDCs and net food importing countries.

It also called on WTO Members to refrain from placing excessive or onerous demands on African countries in their application for accession to WTO and to maintain a transparent, streamlined and accelerated accession process.

The Ministers expressed determination that the agriculture negotiations produce improved and effective market access for African exports, and emphasised the need for effective implementation of the GATS provisions on improving market access in sectors and modes of export interest to African countries.

“We recognise that issues such as trade and investment, competition, transparency in government procurement, trade facilitation, trade and environment and E-commerce are important. However, we agree that these issues are not a priority at this stage and on-going processes should continue in order to prepare for possible future work in this area.”

The Ministers also affirmed the common understanding that the TRIPS Agreement allows Members to take all necessary measures to provide access to medicines at affordable prices and promote public health and nutrition and reiterated the need to adequately protect traditional knowledge and genetic resources.

They also recognised the critical importance of a transparent and inclusive decision-making process in the WTO as vital to maintaining confidence in the organisation and stated that a Ministerial Decision is required in Doha to guarantee that the process of decision-making is transparent and inclusive in the WTO.

The second document, “Africa’s Negotiating Objectives”, elaborated in greater detail on some of the points in the statement. The five sections in this document cover implementation issues and mandated reviews; LDCs; agriculture; services; and Singapore and other issues.

Among the key points under implementation issues and mandated reviews, the document called for actions by the General Council no later than the 4th Ministerial to: revalue the efficacy, adequacy and sufficiency of the concept of transitional periods (especially in TRIPS and TRIMS); review Annex II of the subsidies agreement; grant a waiver for the ACP/EU agreement; realise the technology transfer objectives in TRIPS; confirm that TRIPS allows members to take all necessary measures to provide access to medicines at affordable prices and promote public health; and that the review of TRIPS under Article 71.1 shall examine the extent the objectives of TRIPS have been fulfilled.

Other points included: reaffirm that article 5.3 of TRIMS recognises the trade, development and financial needs of developing countries and the Article 9 review should examine its effects on developing countries’ development prospects; complete the work on harmonising non-preferential rules of origin; increase technical and capacity building assistance programmes; developing countries be allowed to use minimal values essential for applying the customs valuation agreement; and resolve outstanding implementation issues in the light of the 15 December General Council decision.

In the section on Singapore and Other Issues, the document stated that in the area of these issues “the following factors are of critical importance:

·        African countries are not “demandeurs” of multilateral agreements on the issues concerned;

·        African countries generally lack capacity for implementation of obligations in the area;

·        Most African countries remain to be convinced of the potential of the proposed new multilateral Agreements to deliver tangible benefits to them.

·        African countries are concerned over the added burden of obligations in the face of present implementation challenges facing them; with a similar concern over the dangers of overloading the agenda of the WTO;

·        African countries note that so far there appears to be non-consensus among members of the WTO to launch negotiations in these areas; and

·        African countries recall that various working groups have been established to commence studies on the respective subjects and are yet to complete their work.  This study process should continue.”

The document also stressed that “in light of the foregoing, it is particularly agreed that the educative work should continue in the Working Groups in respect of the following issues.”

On trade and investment, it was stated that “the implications for development of a multilateral agreement have not been fully discussed nor understood.”

In the light of this, “all work in this area should focus on facilitating investment flows in African countries, while preserving the policy space and flexibility to pursue their national development objectives.”

On transparency in government procurement, the document says: “African countries are generally prepared to examine issues relating to transparency in government procurement but not market access. The issues involved are complex; especially given that the implications of a multilateral framework on transparency in government procurement on social and economic development, is yet to be fully comprehended.”

On trade and competition policy, it was stated: “Most African countries do not have the necessary legal and administrative infrastructure and prerequisites to deal with competition policy. Furthermore, the inter-relationship between competition and economic development is a complex one, which needs to be fully explored.”

On trade facilitation, the document states that the general assessment is that trade facilitation measures are necessary and beneficial. Ongoing work within and outside the WTO (eg rules of origin, customs valuation) should continue.  Improved facilitation will require increased technical and financial assistance to narrow the technology and human resource gaps between developed and developing countries.

The document also deals briefly with some non-Singapore “new issues.”

It states that core labour standards should remain under the purview of the ILO.

On trade and environment, it states that African countries support the on-going balanced work programme of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment while underscoring that environment considerations should not be used for protectionist purposes. They also recognise the importance of transfer of environmentally friendly technology to developing countries and it is essential that developed countries provide assistance in this area.

On electronic commerce, the document states that useful work has been undertaken at the WTO. The current work programme should be pursued further and the educative process continued.

On non-agricultural market access, the document states that effective participation by African countries in negotiations in this area requires in-depth technical analysis to identify precisely the challenges and the opportunities involved in industrial tariff negotiations. UNCTAD, UNIDO and

other relevant agencies are requested to continue their assistance and support to African countries in this area. – SUNS4974

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

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