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WTO needs serious introspection about its fairness

Geneva, 5 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan) - The World Trade Organization and its membership need to undertake serious introspection about the fairness of the system and its preparatory processes for Ministerial Conferences, the Indian Minister for Commerce and Industry has said.

In a speech in New Delhi on 4 December, at a plenary session of the ‘Indian Economic Summit 2001’, organized by the World Economic Forum, and under the title “WTO: A New Beginning After Doha?”, Mr. Murasoli Maran gave a first hand account of the processes at Doha, including the ‘green room’ and called for some re-thinking.

The participants in the meeting, of Indian and foreign business executives, also included the Foreign Trade Minister of France, Mr. Francois Huwat, and the Indonesian Minister for Industry and Trade, Mr. Rini Soewandi.

In evaluating the work programme adopted by the 4th Ministerial Conference at Doha, Maran said that success would largely be determined by the commitment from developed countries to satisfy the demands of the developing countries. While earlier, the industrial world had not cared about implementation issues or the unmet promises and unfulfilled commitments of the Uruguay Round, for the first time at Doha, there was an acknowledgement of these and a future road map for resolution of the implementation issues and concerns had been made an integral part of the work programme.

Though India had not achieved all its negotiating objectives, said Mr. Maran, it had succeeded in

·        keeping out of negotiations issues that are harmful to India, such as Labour,

·        protecting its fundamental interests in Agriculture, Services and Industrial Tariffs,

·        postponing negotiations on the four Singapore issues to the fifth Ministerial Conference,

·        bringing to the centre of the WTO’s work programme issues such as TRIPS and Transfer of Technology,

·        reducing the potential for harm by incorporating strong safeguards in the mandate for negotiations as well as in the work programme relating to environment,

·        achieving major gains in TRIPS and Public Health, and

·        setting an agenda, not only emphasising trade, but also development goals and priorities of developing countries like India.

The Indian minister who was subject at Doha to a considerable accusations and misinformation campaigns in the media, and by some of the EC officials (including its media spokesperson), told his Delhi audience that it was perplexing that after Doha, the English language in the declaration was being used by some developed countries to give a new spin to the words and interpret it to suit their convenience. It was hence necessary that the WTO and its members need to be clear about “what game we are playing,” he said.

At present (at the WTO), Maran said, “we are witnessing a situation where some players seem to be saying, ‘we’ll start the game and as we kick the ball around, we’ll decide whether we play football or rugby’.... This kind of interpretation is contrary to the spirit of the declarations and would definitely harm the interests of developing countries and affect the credibility of the multilateral trading system.”

In Agriculture, a question of life and death in developing countries like India where 70% of the people live on agriculture or agriculture related activities, they have already paid a price for trade liberalization at Uruguay Round, and for a second time they have paid another price at Doha. “No developing country will come forward to pay a price for the third time,” Maran said.

The working group to study increased flow of transfer of technology to developing countries, set up under the work programme, is to report to the fifth Ministerial conference on its progress, and the issues of special and differential treatment in trade agreements, which are an integral part of the WTO agreements, *shall be fully taken into account” in the work programme.

India would actively and constructively participate in all the negotiations, Maran said, and referring to the work programme in the tariff area, pointed to the high tariffs and non-tariff barriers facing the exports of developing countries, such as in agriculture, labour-intensive goods, the tariff peaks on commodities such as groundnuts in the US and meat and food and dairy products in the EC, as well as the anti-dumping investigations launched by the US and EC against developing country exports.

“Doha is now behind us,” and, if the Uruguay Round gave a cheque that bounced (as the Indian Prime Minister said in the UN General Assembly), what would happen to “another cheque for a handsome amount” has been given at Doha?” asked Mr. Maran, adding: “we don’t want a repetition of the past.”

Referring to the transparency issue at the WTO, Mr. Maran said that apart from “not seriously reflecting” the views of the developing country members, the draft Declaration and the manner in which it was transmitted from Geneva to the Ministers (at Doha) “left a lot to be desired.”

Even at Doha, when the process reached nowhere on 13 November, the scene shifted to the so called ‘Green Room’, where only a handful of WTO members were requested to participate.

“The remaining members virtually had no say,” said Mr. Maran who was himself a participant in the Green Room. Even during discussions on the 13th and the entire night of 13-14 November, almost 38 hours of the non-stop discussions, “texts were appearing by the hour for discussions without giving sufficient time to get them examined by the respective delegations.”

“Who prepared the avalanche of Draft after Draft? Why? We do not know,” said Mr. Maran.

“In the eleventh hour probably after 37 hrs. 45 minutes, they produced a Draft like a magician producing a rabbit out of his hat - and said that it was the Final Draft. The tactics seemed to be to produce a draft at the wee hours and force others to accept that or come nearer to that. Has it happened in any international Conference? Definitely not.”

“Any system which in the last minute forces many developing countries to accept texts in areas of crucial importance to them cannot be a fair system,” Mr Maran said and suggested that the WTO Membership should have “serious introspection about the fairness of the preparatory process” for Ministerial Conferences.

“At a minimum,” he added, “there should be a stipulation that during the Ministerial Conferences, no new text on any issue will be put for adoption without the delegations getting sufficient time to study the text and to consult their polity. The last minute Draft, which often comes like a bolt from the blue, will not contribute to the strength of multilateral trading system, since the decisions are likely to affect the lives of billions of people all over the world.”

Citing the example of the draft on the declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, Maran noted that a drafting Committee was appointed (in the preparatory process) and India was one of the members. Consultations took place for many days.  Finally, at Doha the main controversy was reduced to a few words either to use “shall” or ‘can and should not”. In this process, every country had a sense of participation and satisfaction. Why should this example be not followed for other Declarations also?

Replying to those complaining about his ‘sharp and blunt’ comments about the WTO, Mr. Maran said he was merely doing his duty of reflecting the views of Indian industry, business associations, agriculture and other stake-holders. No Commerce Minister could deviate from this primary duty.

“The WTO is a forum where Governments can negotiate to reduce barriers to trade and agree to rules to try to resolve disputes. We cannot make the WTO into the organization that will deal with all the problems that elected, national Governments struggle with every day. Let’s be honest. The WTO is not a global Government with the power to order new environmental or labour laws or, for that matter, better tax regimes, pension plans, health programmes, civilian control of militaries or a host of other meritorious outcomes.”

These, said Mr. Maran, were not his words, but that of Mr. Robert Zoellick, the USTR, in an interview to The Washington Post after the Seattle fiasco. And, as the UK weekly, The Economist, said “the risk is that the new round (and so the entire multilateral system) could collapse under the weight of too many contentious issues.” – SUNS5026

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

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