African Ministers want clarification of Singapore issues to continue

African Trade Ministers have called for the impending WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun to continue the process of clarifying the Singapore issues rather than initiate negotiations on the contentious topics. Meeting recently in Mauritius to address Africa’s development concerns, they also urged WTO members to “inject momentum” into ongoing talks under the Doha work programme in order to ensure that the Cancun Ministerial “yields positive results for African countries.”

by Tetteh Hormeku

GRAND BAIE (MAURITIUS): African Ministers of Trade at their meeting here affirmed that the WTO’s Cancun Ministerial Conference should focus on outstanding development concerns and decide to continue “clarifying” the Singapore issues instead of embarking on negotiations on them.

The Ministers of Trade of the member states of the African Union met on 19-20 June to consider issues of developmental importance to Africa, including coordinating their position for the forthcoming Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun.

They indicated their stand that the forthcoming Cancun meeting should address the African countries’ existing developmental concerns (such as on agriculture, industrial products, intellectual property, special and differential treatment, and implementation issues).

On the Singapore issues, the Ministers said they were complex, there was no common understanding among WTO members on them, there were serious implications for their economies, and therefore the clarification process should continue.

It was the understanding of officials and observers present that the meaning of this was that the Ministers were not in favour of starting negotiations for new agreements on the Singapore issues, i.e., investment, competition, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation.

In the Ministerial Declaration on the WTO’s Fifth Ministerial Conference adopted unanimously on 20 June, the Trade Ministers expressed serious concerns over the general lack of progress in current WTO negotiations, as evidenced by missed deadlines on key issues that were important for Africa.

No negotiations

In a paragraph on the Singapore issues (on which the major developed countries are strongly advocating the launch of negotiations at Cancun), the African Ministers stated that they “recognize the complexity and importance of the Singapore issues and note that WTO members do not have a common understanding on how these issues should be dealt with procedurally and substantively.”

“Taking into account the potential serious implications of these issues on our economies, we call for the process of clarification to be continued.”

In the current terminology and code language of WTO discussions, this means that the Ministers do not want a decision in Cancun that would launch negotiations on new agreements on the Singapore issues.  Instead, they would like the working groups and bodies on these issues to continue their work of  “clarification” of the issues.

At the WTO’s Doha Ministerial Conference in 2001, the Ministers agreed that negotiations on the four Singapore issues would begin after the Fifth Ministerial Conference, on the basis of an explicit consensus on the modalities of negotiations. Until then, a process of “clarification” of the issues should be carried out in the respective working groups.

Since then, many developing countries, including many African countries, have argued at the WTO that there is no convergence of views on each of the issues, and that therefore Cancun should not launch negotiations but instead authorize the continuation of the work of “clarifying” the issues.

The African Ministers’ Declaration thus asserts the common position of African countries that there is no common understanding (or consensus) among the WTO members on these issues, either procedurally or substantively, and that the “clarification” process should continue.

The Declaration has expressed serious concern over the general lack of progress in the current negotiations, as evidenced by the missed deadlines in issues of importance to Africa, such as agriculture, TRIPS and public health, special and differential treatment, and implementation-related issues.

The Ministers challenged the WTO members to “inject momentum into the negotiations on these issues in order to ensure that the Cancun WTO Ministerial yields positive results for African countries and makes the Doha Work Programme a truly ‘Development Agenda’.”

The Ministers also criticized the WTO’s decision-making process in the negotiations in preparation for the Cancun Conference, which they said lacked transparency and inclusiveness.

The Declaration said:  “We are concerned about the lack of transparency and inclusiveness in the WTO negotiations and decision-making processes. We call for measures to ensure the effective participation of our countries in the processes leading to the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference at Cancun and beyond.”

Unity of purpose

The declaration invoked the outcomes of earlier meetings involving African Ministers such as the meetings of COMESA in Nairobi, SADC in Lusaka, and the LDCs in Dhaka.  It was adopted with little drama and no fuss, in an efficient display of unity of purpose and will. In fact the approval of the declaration came on the first day itself (on 19 June) although it was formally adopted on 20 June.

The approval was at the end of a day of deliberations in which a diverse range of speakers - Ministers, representatives of sister groupings like the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries, as well as African civil society organizations - all urged unity around a common African position as necessary to ensure that the core concerns of Africa prevailed in Geneva and Cancun, whatever the pressures brought to bear on these countries.

Apart from their position on the new issues, the declaration contained specific positions on major areas of the ongoing work in the WTO, including agriculture, services, industrial tariffs, TRIPS, special and differential treatment, capacity-building, and the lack of transparency and inclusiveness in the processes.

The Ministers stated that they were deeply concerned at the failure to meet the deadline for modalities in agriculture, which is a major setback to the reform programme. Agriculture was of critical importance to Africa’s development, with the potential to “lift millions of our people” out of poverty.

They added that progress in the agricultural negotiations was essential for the successful conclusion of the Doha work programme, and strongly urged members to fulfil their Doha commitments.

Ministers also recognized the vital importance of longstanding preferences for African countries, welcomed the proposals on preferences in the Harbinson text, and called on WTO members to address the erosion of preferences and to exempt least developed countries (LDCs) from any obligations to reduce tariffs.

They expressed solidarity with African countries affected by cotton subsidies and strong support for some African countries’ actions at the WTO to remedy the negative consequences of these subsidies.

On services, the declaration noted that the WTO’s Services Council had not met the requirement in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) to carry out an assessment of trade in services.

Furthermore, in an apparent reference to the pressures from developed countries to liberalize their service sector against their will, the Ministers reiterated that “due respect must be given for the Members’ right to regulate trade in services and liberalize according to their national policy objectives.”

They also emphasized the need to respect the principle of progressive liberalization, to promote and facilitate the participation of African countries in international trade in services, and for liberalization by developed countries in service sectors and modes of export interest to African countries.

On the issue of TRIPS and public health, the Ministers were deeply concerned at the failure to find a solution to enable countries with insufficient or no manufacturing capacities to make effective use of compulsory licensing. They reiterated support for the 16 December 2002 chairman’s text and called on members to join the consensus on this text.

On non-agricultural market access, the Ministers affirmed that the objectives of the negotiations are “to facilitate the development and industrialization in our countries.”

They added:  “The modalities and the actual negotiations must reflect these goals appropriately by addressing tariff peaks and escalations, taking fully into account the special needs and interests of developing and least-developed countries, including through less than full reciprocity and the principle of Special and Differential Treatment.”

The Ministers were deeply concerned that the draft modalities text from the chairman of the negotiating group “do[es] not take into account the specific vulnerabilities of African industries, especially in the textiles and clothing, leather and fisheries sectors.”

The Ministers were gravely concerned that proposals made by some African countries in Geneva have not been considered, especially regarding erosion of preferences and revenue implications, which are critically important to Africa.

They welcomed the chairman’s proposals to exempt LDCs from making any reduction commitments.  The proposed studies on LDCs should be extended to other African countries and should include effects of previous liberalization measures as well as the potential impact of any proposed modalities.

On special and differential treatment, the declaration emphasized the importance of completing the work programme, and that all S&D provisions in the WTO agreements be reviewed with a view to strengthening them and making them more precise, effective, binding and operational.  The Ministers were deeply concerned that the mandate had not been met and called on the WTO to conclude this work as a priority before Cancun.

They were also concerned about the lack of progress and missed deadlines on implementation issues and called on the WTO to conclude this work as a matter of priority before Cancun.  The Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on LDCs and Net Food Importing Developing Countries should also be fully operationalized.

The declaration asked that the WTO working groups on trade, debt and finance, and on technology transfer be continued after Cancun, stressing the need for a coherent and holistic approach at the multilateral level on trade, debt and finance issues, and the need to operationalize WTO provisions on technology transfer.

The African Union Ministers also adopted a separate Declaration on the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) which the African countries will negotiate with the EU.

In this declaration, they affirmed the importance of consistency between these negotiations and the aims and objectives as set out in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, with the various regional economic groups as the building blocs of African integration.

The EPA declaration also emphasized the importance of the unity and solidarity of the ACP group as being necessary for the EPA negotiations.

In an apparent reference to the pressures by the European Union to rush the process of negotiations and fragment the collective ACP strategy, the declaration on the EPAs underlined the importance of phase I of the negotiations (in which the ACP countries as a whole negotiate the applicable principles) as a foundation and framework to phase II of the negotiations, during which groups of countries are expected to negotiate free trade agreements of their own with the EU.  It also urged the ACP and EU to address all outstanding issues under the phase I negotiations.

Both declarations were adopted after discussions that focussed on the measures needed by Africa to ensure that its interests prevail in the face of a stark balance sheet of the disappointed hopes of Doha.

Strength in unity

Earlier, in his welcome address to the conference, the Mauritius Minister of Industry and International Trade, Mr. J. Cuttaree, asked the Ministers to draw their strength and decision of purpose from their unity in order for Africa’s pressing concerns over the core issues of the Doha agenda to be recognized in Geneva and Cancun.

He reminded the Ministers that 19 months after the hope and optimism evoked with the launch at Doha of trade negotiations under the “title of Development Round”, the development agenda is stranded in missed deadlines. The negotiations have failed to yield “balanced outcomes in which the interests of all, particularly those who are in most need, are truly attended,” he pointed out.

Cuttaree stated that “had the WTO been effective in finding expeditious solutions to the problems of TRIPS and public health, we should have seen an improvement for millions of people in Africa who are suffering from deadly diseases”. Nor have African countries had any comfort on their basic concerns in the areas of special and differential treatment, agriculture and textiles.

He pointed to the double standards at play in the area of industrial tariffs.  Here, proposals to drastically cut and eliminate tariffs, which African countries have already declared to be a recipe for disaster, are being pursued by countries that had themselves used this instrument in the early stages of their industrialization process. “Having used the ladder for so long, it is not fair that they should kick the ladder off to the detriment of our countries”.

In a similar vein, Ambassador Vijay Markham, Interim African Union Commissioner, cautioned that while trade is important, Ministers need to beware of those who sing the praises and play the tune of unbridled trade liberalization.

He reminded them of the case of the former UK trade minister, Stephen Byers, who, while in government, had promoted trade liberalization as a panacea to the problems of development, only to confess once outside government that his optimism had not been borne out in practice.

Markham argued that a “conducive international trading environment is as important, if not more important, than efforts at national level to make trade an effective instrument for development”.  This required action on correcting the imbalances and inequities of the international trading system, such as the persistent deterioration in the terms of trade for primary commodities, tariff peaks and escalation, the asymmetry in the treatment of capital and labour in the area of services, as well as agricultural subsidies in developed countries that are destroying the livelihood of African farmers daily.

Referring to the failures in the Doha agenda to address these problems, Markham said that this created a situation where “once again pressure will be brought to bear on us to compromise on our stand so that Cancun can be a success.  This cannot and should not be allowed to happen.”

On her part, Adelaide Mkhonza, Assistant Secretary-General of the ACP countries, stated that the glimmer of hope contained in the Doha development agenda for ACP and other developing countries to rebalance the rules of the WTO has been undermined by a stalled process.  The missed deadlines are set to overload and stretch the agenda to the detriment of countries with limited resources. The African Union provided a foundation of collective action of African countries, together with other countries of the ACP group, for the necessary action to redress these imbalances.

Civil-society support

African civil society organizations, which for the first time were allowed to meet under the auspices of the conference and to address the Ministers, underscored their support for the collective effort of the Ministers for international trade rules that reflect the needs and interests of the people of Africa.

In their statement, presented on their behalf by Jane Ocaya-Irama of Uganda, the civil society organizations called on the Ministers to focus on addressing the inequities of the existing agreements of the WTO, and reject any attempt to launch negotiations on the Singapore issues in Cancun.  The civil society organizations made detailed recommendations for redressing imbalances in areas such as agriculture, TRIPS, services and S&D.

In addition, they drew attention to the undemocratic and non-transparent processes of the WTO, and called for the elimination of such abusive practices as exclusive informal meetings, mini-ministerials, and other non-transparent devices such as the arbitrary appointment of “friends of the chair”.

They said that they were aware of the pressures by developed countries to derail African countries from pursuing their concerns in the trade negotiations, and they pledged to work with Ministers as they strive for rules and agreements which will serve the interests of African women and men.

The very presence of civil society organizations formally at the gathering of Ministers and the fact that they addressed their concerns directly to the Ministers was a welcome precedent for the African Union.

But while the civil society organizations  lent  support to  the Ministers, it was clear that their demands were stronger and went far beyond what the Ministers were able to adopt in their declarations.

According to Thomas Deve of MWENGO from Zimbabwe, this gap between civil society demands and the Ministers’ positions sets a benchmark for judging how far the Ministers will go in the coming months to hold up to their collective positions in the face of pressure.  It also outlines the tasks ahead for civil society groups in Africa and beyond to ensure that Ministers live up to their commitments to Africa. (SUNS5369)   

Tetteh Hormeku is with the Third World Network Africa regional secretariat based in Accra, Ghana.