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TRADE: A Bitter Pill for the WTO and Activists to Swallow

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jul 29 2005 (IPS) - WTO authorities played down the significance of the new stalemate in the Doha Round of talks and the threat hanging over the sixth ministerial conference in Hong Kong. But civil society organisations see the multilateral trade system’s latest fiasco in a much more serious light.

Amina Mohamed, chair of the WTO General Council and currently the multilateral trade organisation’s top authority, said “there is not a ‘crisis’ in the negotiations – we need not ‘press the panic button’.”

However, the Kenyan negotiator admitted that nearly four years after the Doha Round of talks was launched in the Qatari capital, “It would certainly be fair to say that we aren’t where we wanted to be,” and “The progress we have made has been slow – much too slow.”

The resistance of the countries of the industrialised North to dismantling protectionism in agriculture is the chief hurdle to progress in the talks.

Mohamed summed up the outcome of the latest phase of the talks at a General Council session of the representatives of the 148 WTO member states that was also held to say farewell to outgoing director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi and welcome his successor, Pascal Lamy.

The negotiators are now setting their sights on the Hong Kong conference, with the hope of making up for lost time and adopting in that meeting the set of rules or “modalities” needed to reach a final Doha Round agreement by 2007.

With that aim, Mohamed recommended avoiding informal mini-ministerial meetings outside Geneva – where the WTO is based – “to make the most efficient, rational use of time” from here to the December meeting in Hong Kong.

But she added that “It may be useful to provide a stocktaking session in the fall for ministers to assess whether progress is being made.”

With regard to a touchy issue, transparency in the negotiations, Mohamed promised to ensure the effective representation of the member states in all meetings.

But she noted that the key point is still the need for “real political will” to pull the talks out of the current deadlock, “not political speeches, but political action and political courage.”

Mohamed confirmed that the main problem remains the “modalities for agriculture, still the engine of the Round.”

Other issues that deserve to be given priority treatment are “modalities for non-agricultural market access, a critical mass of high quality offers in services, an agreed negotiating agenda in the area of rules, including trade facilitation, and a meaningful contribution to development in all aspects of the negotiations,” she added.

The WTO must shift gears and improve its performance from here to the December ministerial conference, Mohamed underlined.

Non-governmental organisations, meanwhile, reacted with greater concern to the latest WTO setback.

The International Chamber of Commerce said it was “concerned and deeply disappointed with the lack of progress” in the round of talks that ended Friday.

ICC secretary general Guy Sebban called on governments “to redouble their efforts to keep the Doha Development Agenda on course towards a successful conclusion next year in the interests of global growth and job creation.”

But Friends of the Earth International said that “Trade liberalisation as currently promoted by organisations like the WTO is seen by many as an aggressive attempt to open up developing countries’ markets for the benefit of Western multinational corporations.”

“WTO talks must be halted. There needs to be a fuller understanding of what is at stake, who will benefit and who will lose out,” said the environmental group’s vice-president, Tony Juniper.

Emma Harrison, Consumers International’s trade campaign manager, said “We are deeply disappointed that the WTO negotiations have not made the breakthrough decisions needed to ensure fair access to markets, reduce trade barriers and improve the lives of the poorest people. This really is the last chance for WTO governments to move matters forward so consumers can benefit.”

WTO trade negotiators should eliminate all export subsidies on food products by 2010 and ensure that basic services (water and electricity) reach all consumers, said Harrison.

Another priority for the ministerial conference will be to “resist pressure from business to ban eco-labelling. Consumer information is not a barrier to trade, it’s a basic right,” she added.

Consumers International also called for the implementation of the provisions agreed in Doha in 2001 to “enable developing countries to manufacture or import life-saving drugs at affordable prices.”

Another civil society organisation, the World Development Movement (WDM) criticised the negotiating objectives set by the EU, that “give little on agriculture and demand massive concessions from developing countries in talks on industrial tariffs and trade services.”

“The EU must perform a 180 degree reversal of this agenda for there to be any deal that would be in the interests of the poor,” said WDM head of policy Peter Hardstaff. “Failure to do this means that it would be better for the talks to collapse in Hong Kong.”

The WDM noted that Jamaican Ambassador Ransford Smith said at the WTO General Council meeting that “If we would assess it now, then the development aspect is sadly lacking.”

With respect to the change in leadership, Hardstaff remarked that “Rich countries have made little effort to hide their excitement at the arrival of Pascal Lamy when negotiations start in autumn.”

“It is unlikely that he will do anything to stop rich countries using undemocratic and untransparent negotiating tactics, such as (closed door invitation-only) Green Rooms, to get a deal,” added the activist.

Céline Charvériat, head of Oxfam International’s Make Trade Fair campaign, said “There is a lack of political will and an absence of leadership” in the negotiating process.

“Without a fundamental change in attitude, the ministerial conference in Hong Kong will be a failure, and the chances of developing countries benefiting from trade reform will be extinguished,” she argued.

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