"Implementation" is different things to different nations

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: A range of country concerns and problems swirling around the implementation of the WTO agreements were raised by developing country ministers and delegations at a working session of the WTO Ministerial Conference on 18 May.

Developing countries identified areas that need to be addressed:

  • the implementation of the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, where there has been compliance perhaps with the letter of the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC), but without any liberalization of the trade enabling increased exports by developing countries;

  • the raising of new barriers to developing country exports through agreements such as the Agreements on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), and rules of origin; and

  • problems arising from the TRIPs Agreement;

While industrial nations tried to argue that dealing with the implementation problems in the ATC would amount to a "renegotiation" of the ATC, many developing countries said the ATC did not come in the way of more meaningful liberalization or in a manner that does not back-load the integration and make the industrial nations face adjustment problems at the end.

However, some of them agreed that implementing legislation on the Uruguay Round, spelling out the details of various stages of integration and what to integrate when, could create some difficulties for the US.

Nevertheless, in the WTO's Goods Council itself, the US and the EC have been repeatedly insisting that whatever their difficulties, they are committed to ending the discriminatory quota restrictions at the end of the 10-year period.

Several developing countries complained that many of the restrictions under the TBT or SPS Agreements have been imposed or new standards set without any "transparency".

Agriculture issues were prominently mentioned both by many developing countries, as well as by Cairns Group members, the United States and Japan. Norway would appear to have raised the issues of environment.

In a separate, so-far-plurilateral process, the US pushed hard to get an accord on a declaration from the 2nd Ministerial Conference on Global Electronic Commerce.

While asking for a study process of sorts, through a work programme set by the General Council, on all the trade-related issues of electronic commerce, the substance of the US declaration would have the WTO members agreeing to "continue their current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmission", and that "when reporting to the third session (of the Ministerial Conference), the General Council will review this declaration."

India, Pakistan, Mexico, Argentina, Peru and others objected to a standstill as worded - since its ambiguity could be used later to mean that it would continue unless the WTO General Council decides by consensus otherwise.

In the discussions, while the US delegation seemed ready to reformulate it to meet objections, it was not clear how some US supporters like Australia wanted the ambiguity to be maintained.

This resulted in hardening the opposition of some who said they could not agree to an indefinite standstill nor to one from which they could resile only by the consensus of the WTO General Council.

Some negotiators noted that during the Uruguay Round, the concept of accords only by consensus was turned on its head by the then GATT Director-General who presented his "draft compromise text" as a package and said any part of it could be changed only by "consensus", thus preventing changes.

Negotiators said they did not want to be caught in a similar trap.

And even though the text on electronic commerce is not viewed as a legal commitment but only as a political declaration, a "political commitment" is, in fact, on a higher pedestal than a legal one, one negotiator said.

Some developing country sources said that while, at the moment, they were not levying any "tariffs", the high visibility given to the issue by the US has attracted the attention of their hard-pressed revenue authorities looking for new sources of revenue.

While the US has been repeatedly saying it wants a standstill only on "tariffs" and not on any "taxes", in fact it is not really such an easy and clear-cut distinction, more so when the "product" delivered by electronic transmission is not a physical one on which the various distinctions between taxes, duties, cesses, levies and so on have been developed in trade law. (Third World Economics No. 184/185, 1-31 May 1998)

Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).