TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec09/07)
16 December 2009
Third World Network

Ministers review WTO activities and the Doha Work Programme
Published in SUNS #6827 dated 3 December 2009

Geneva, 2 Dec (Kanaga Raja) -- The first working session of the seventh Ministerial Conference was held on Tuesday with Ministers reviewing the activities of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including the Doha Work Programme.

The Ministers also discussed the issues of regional trade agreements, Aid for Trade and accession issues.

According to trade officials, in some brief remarks at the beginning of the session, Director-General Pascal Lamy suggested that the Ministers devote the session to matters concerning the Doha Development Agenda, regional trade agreements, Aid for Trade and the issue of accessions.

He said that "The longer it takes to conclude the negotiations, the longer the WTO's insurance policy to guarantee stability and predictability of market access to governments and traders alike will remain un-subscribed."

He added that "The amount of progress that has been made since the last Ministerial Conference, in 2005, is quite impressive."

"How do we translate this political will into concrete action? How do we organize ourselves to tackle the last few remaining issues, bridge the last gaps, paving the way for a successful conclusion of the Round," he asked.

"We already have a meeting of senior officials scheduled for December here in Geneva. Isn't it time to agree on a calendar of future meetings and to take a deep breath and push for this last stretch?"

This appeared to be a reference to his attempt to have a mini-ministerial in 2010 (April or May is being mentioned) to get Ministers to focus on the Doha talks and reach some accords - something that has increasing support among Members, but which the US does not want and is reportedly resisting.

[Meanwhile, in some "Live Blogging" posted at the International Economic Law and Policy Blog (IELP), a website run by US trade lawyers' lobby civil society group (that secured media accreditation from the WTO), a member of that group, Tomer Broude, has summed up the discussions and views, at the Ministerial and in side meetings, as: "Exit Strategy Talk -- Doha Light or Functional UNCTAD?"

[One likely possibility, according to him, is figuring out how to get off the Doha caravan or an exit strategy - the sub-text being that no one believes that the Doha Development Agenda's original mandate can be completed within a year, but rather one that would include only some of the issues in which relative agreement has been reached.

[In this scenario, according to him, the options seem to be to persist patiently, until conditions ripen for a comprehensive agreement; or, to cut the losses, consolidate the little that has been agreed upon, because it does have value, get it done in 2010 and move on, shifting focus to post-round sectoral agreements involving only the main importers and exporters in each sector, without holding the entire round hostage; or an informal abandonment and a "functional UNCTAD", where the WTO's negotiation function is "in abeyance", leaving only the WTO's dispute settlement function and perhaps an enhanced (and important) monitoring function.]

Lamy in his remarks to the working session said that it is useful for Members to begin to ensure a minimum of coherence between what they commit to in regional trade agreements and what they commit to in the WTO.

On the issue of Aid for Trade, Lamy asked: "How can we secure future financing of Aid for Trade programmes, in a time when public treasuries are suffering from the crisis, but in a time where previously available private finance has disappeared to support capacity building in areas like transports or energy infrastructures?"

On the question of accessions, the Director-General noted that there are 29 countries in the accession queue. It is time that Members at the Ministerial level begin to look collectively at this process, said Lamy, asking Ministers if they themselves are giving the necessary political attention to these processes.

According to trade officials, during the discussions that followed, Ministers reiterated the positions their countries have held for some time. Virtually all Ministers stated that the advent of the economic crisis made concluding the Doha Round more important than ever.

While there was wide acknowledgment that a great deal of progress has been made in the Doha Round since the last Ministerial meeting in Hong Kong-China, there was also a general appreciation that the pace of negotiations would have to accelerate if the Round is to be concluded by the end of 2010.

According to trade officials, many Ministers said that there was need in the coming weeks to decide on how the negotiations should proceed in 2010 and that a stock-taking of the Round's progress was also needed.

Some countries such as Australia and Pakistan said that Ministers' involvement in early 2010 should be more than simply to take stock of the situation. Ministers should get down to bridging the gaps on outstanding political questions. Some delegations also said that a roadmap for future work will be needed.

India called for discussions on the "headline" issues, such as cotton, domestic support in agriculture, and Mode-4 in services.

Many countries also were of the view that the agriculture and NAMA Chairs' texts of December 2008 should remain the basis for negotiations and that the development dimension must be retained at the heart of these negotiations.

Several Ministers stressed the importance of greater convergence between regional trade agreements and multilateral trade rules, and many said that it is important to move further forward with enhancements to the Aid for Trade programmes.

Several Ministers also said that they wish to see the accession process streamlined.

Earlier in the day, the Director-General hosted breakfast with Ministers from the Least Developed Countries and donor countries. The meeting was in relation to the Enhanced Integrated Framework, which is a partnership of six core international agencies and several regional bodies.

According to trade officials, the framework assists the LDCs in their efforts to mainstream trade into their development programmes.

Trade officials said that the programme became operational in July with the approval of two projects involving Yemen and Sierra Leone. Some five projects have been subsequently approved and there are twenty more in the pipeline.

According to trade officials, total funding for these projects through the first quarter of next year will come to $22 million. Currently, the Enhanced Integrated Framework Trust Fund holds $69 million.

Among the areas of discussion during the breakfast meeting were the importance of the enhanced Integrated Framework in identifying bottlenecks to accession to the WTO, meeting food safety standards in export markets, and problems related to customs clearance and transport.

The Director-General concluded the meeting by saying that the economic crisis has affected the LDCs more adversely than any other group of countries, making the efforts of the enhanced Integrated Framework more important than ever before.

He said that those LDCs that had acted resolutely in putting together national strategies, are the ones who are beginning to show gains from trade.

Meanwhile, a new initiative was launched Tuesday by the WTO and the International Trade Centre (ITC) to support several of the world's poorest countries in preparing to join the WTO and will focus in particular on strengthening relations between governments and the private sector.

In launching the Trade Capacity for Acceding LDCs Programme, ITC Executive Director Patricia R. Francis said: "In our globalized world, the poorest countries have much to gain from WTO membership, since increased trade can make a major contribution to poverty reduction. But there are considerable challenges, and this programme will help countries to take steps to overcome them."

There are currently 12 LDCs in the process of negotiating accession to the WTO and the programme will initially be launched in five of them: Ethiopia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Liberia, Samoa and Yemen. The WTO and ITC have received an increasing number of requests for support in the complex accession negotiating process. +