Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct16/21)
25 October 2016
Third World Network
Africa group's deadly blow to E-com thematic or negotiating issues
Published in SUNS #8337 dated 20 October 2016
Geneva, 19 Oct (D. Ravi Kanth) -- Members of the African Group delivered
a deadly blow to the so-called Friend of the World Trade Organization
General Council chair overseeing the dedicated sessions on electronic
commerce/digital trade on Tuesday (18 October), saying they will not
accept attempts to force discussions on thematic or negotiating issues
that are inconsistent with the 1998 work program on e-commerce, several
envoys told the SUNS.
Morocco, on behalf of the African Group, issued a hard-hitting statement
at the 12th dedicated session on e-commerce which forced Ambassador
Alfredo Suescum of Panama, the so-called Friend of the GC chair, to
suspend the thematic session on "Facilitating e-commerce and
e-commerce for development".
Several members of the African Group such as Uganda, Cameroon, and
Zimbabwe among others joined Morocco in conveying forcefully to Ambassador
Suescum to back off from his efforts as they were procedurally inconsistent
with the "inclusive" and "consensus-building practices"
propagated by the WTO ad infinitum.
"It will be recalled Ministers in Nairobi reaffirmed the value
of our consistent practice of taking decisions through a transparent,
inclusive, consensus-based, Member-driven process," Uganda told
"Whilst we recognize that we were not part of the consultations
held on 4 and 5 October, we have difficulty proceeding on the basis
of a ‘thematic based approach' as has been suggested," Uganda
said, starkly pointing to the opaque, and non-inclusive process adopted
by Ambassador Suescum.
Uganda said it is not against any discussions on e-commerce, but such
discussion should be "consistent with the mandate bestowed upon
"It is inconceivable that a country like Uganda, a Least Developed
Country, could argue against a development related discussion,"
"However, such discussion has to be well structured, agreed upon,
and rooted in the work program ... we recall that the Work Program
is exploratory in nature and has no negotiating mandate," Uganda
On behalf of the African Group, Morocco issued the strongest statement
yet on the manner in which existing mandates and rules are being violated
to force negotiations on e-commerce/digital trade while the outstanding
issues in the Doha work program are pushed under the carpet.
Over the last several months, the United States, the European Union
and their allies have intensified their efforts for launching negotiations
on e-commerce on several fronts.
The African Group reminded Ambassador Suescum about what ought to
be the role of the WTO in conducting day-to-day business.
"The WTO is a Member-driven organization, and where the order
of business ought to be conducted in a transparent manner among all
Members, in order to facilitate the effective participation of all,"
The Africa Group, according to Morocco, "has not agreed to proceed
in the Dedicated Discussion on a ‘thematic' basis."
"Before we agree to a process like this, the Africa Group needs
clarification on how the different themes will be decided upon, and
how these discussions will unfold in relation to the existing mandate
in the Work Programme," it argued.
Citing the proposal made by Canada "that four WTO Committees
would contribute to the programme" as agreed by Ministers in
the Nairobi Ministerial Decision on E-commerce in paragraph 1, Morocco
said "the submissions on the table should be taken to the relevant
bodies for further examination."
"This is also in line with paragraph 1.1 of the Work Programme
where it states that ‘the General Council establishes the programme
for the relevant WTO bodies as set out in paragraphs 2 to 5' of document
WT/L/274," the African Group argued (see SUNS #8334 dated 17
October 2016, "North's efforts to ‘bury' Doha, push e-commerce
and GVCs at MC11).
Therefore, "the Africa Group will be unable to fully engage in
these Dedicated Discussions" until there is clarity on all aspects
of the mandate, Morocco made clear.
"We are ready to engage in a discussion to examine the issues
under the broad framework set out in the Work Programme on E-commerce
on this basis, with priority attention given to the developmental
aspects of e-commerce," the African Group coordinator maintained.
But "we do not support a discussion on multilateral rule-making
in this area," Morocco said emphatically.
Given the persistent "knowledge gap" that exists among countries,
"the intensification of work and the submissions about the possibility
of rules on e-commerce runs the risk of dividing us even further,"
the Africa Group warned.
Therefore, "the Africa Group does not want to see existing imbalances
further entrenched," Morocco argued on behalf of the 54 countries.
(Three countries - Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire and Seychelles - did not
join the joint statement issued by the African Group.)
Morocco demanded that the 1998 work program on e-commerce be fully
implemented as a matter of priority.
"With over 68 per cent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa living
without electricity and only 1 in 5 people in Africa using the Internet,
the facts and figures paint a stark picture of where Africa stands,
[and] the digital divide and infrastructure deficit indicates that
most of Sub-Saharan Africa, which is comprised mostly of LDCs, is
not e-commerce-ready," Morocco said.
More crucially, "the Work Programme is as relevant today, as
it was in 1998," Morocco maintained, suggesting that "the
Africa Group is particularly interested in the proponents' views on
examining ways of enhancing the participation of developing countries
in e-commerce, in particular as exporters of electronically delivered
products: role of improved access to infrastructure and transfer of
technology, and of movement of natural persons".
The Africa Group delivered the hardest blow to Ambassador Suescum
and the United States, the EU, and others when it said that it "is
guided by the Nairobi Ministerial Declaration, [where] Ministers agreed
to prioritize work on the outstanding Doha issues, such as Agricultural
Trade distorting Domestic Support; SSM; Public Stockholding for Food
Security; Cotton; LDC priorities; TRIPS and last but not least, Development
"We are yet to see that same momentum, breadth and scope of attention
[to the outstanding Doha issues] as has been accorded to e-commerce,"
It offered a way forward by proposing "an inclusive approach
to pursuing e-commerce discussions" and suggested the following
(i) The submissions should be taken to the relevant bodies as set
out in paragraphs 2 to 5 of the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce.
Only once the discussions in the relevant bodies have matured, should
they be reported to the General Council.
(ii) Members may identify any trade-related issue of a cross-cutting
nature, detailing its cross-cutting nature. Once all Members have
agreed, it may be introduced for discussion in the Dedicated Discussion
(iii) Members who wish to deviate from the mandate in the Work Programme
should detail their proposed way forward in writing. Members should
articulate the clearly defined problem and explain how such deviation
will provide benefits to all Members, especially developing and least
India, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela supported the African Group and
asked Ambassador Suescum to sort out the procedural issues before
discussing any substantive aspects concerning e-commerce/digital trade.
Brazil said Ambassador Suescum must address the legitimate procedural
concerns raised by the Africa Group.
Several members pointed out that Ambassador Suescum adopted a thematic
approach that was not the product of consensus decision-making or
prior discussion among all Members.
Ambassador Suescum had held private "confessionals" on 4-5
October with some 25 Members on the way forward, without first bringing
the proposal to conduct the discussions on a thematic basis to all
The European Union, Canada, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Pakistan
among others supported efforts by Ambassador Suescum to discuss their
proposals, including e-commerce and development.
China said that any discussions on e-commerce should not result in
any new market access obligations and it should avoid controversial
cross-border data flow and data localisation issues that would not
get consensus in the short-term as suggested by the United States
in a non-paper that was submitted several months ago.
Nigeria urged Ambassador Suescum to hold open-ended consultations
to address the procedural concerns and organization of work under
the Work Programme raised by several members before proceeding to
discuss substantive issues.
Brazil, India, South Africa, and several other countries supported
the Nigerian suggestion for open-ended consultations.
"It was a huge embarrassment for Ambassador Suescum who insisted
at one point that he would press ahead with the meeting to discuss
the proposals submitted by some members despite continued objections
from members of the Africa Group," said a participant from an
"It is not that we are opposed to having a discussion on e-commerce
and development; we were essentially questioning the decision-making
process Ambassador Suescum adopted on a non-inclusive basis,"
the participant argued.
"The chair's process was not inclusive and constructive for the
conduct of the activities in the dedicated session and he cannot ignore
the Nairobi ministerial decision, or the 1998 mandate," the participant
The Nairobi ministerial decision merely directed members to "continue
the work under the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce since our
last session, based on the existing mandate and guidelines and on
the basis of proposals submitted by Members in the relevant WTO bodies
as set out in paragraphs 2 to 5 of the Work Programme [under the General
Council decision of 30 September 1998, WT/L/274]."
"Let us all meet in an open-ended format where members inclusively
agree first on the conduct of discussions on cross-cutting issues
and then send those issues to the four bodies - the council on trade
in goods, the council on trade in services, the council on trade and
development, and the TRIPS council - for addressing the issues,"
said another African participant.
The sudden developments at the dedicated session on Tuesday came against
the backdrop of a clarion call issued by the United States Trade Representative
Ambassador Michael Froman on Monday (17 October) at the Graduate Institute
that WTO members must embark on e-commerce as well as efforts by Norway
to build ground for launching e-commerce as a priority deliverable
at a mini-ministerial summit on Friday.
In conclusion, the African Group and other developing countries have
their task cut out for ensuring that discussions on e-commerce are
based on the 1998 work program and that all other Doha issues are
brought to the center stage in the run-up to the eleventh ministerial
meeting in Buenos Aires next year, several trade envoys said. +