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Renewed Mandate for UNCTAD After North-South Wrangling

GENEVA, May 1 2012 (IPS) - After often bruising negotiations along North-South lines, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has obtained a renewed and broad mandate for its future work, including on global economic issues.

The outcome of UNCTAD’s ministerial conference, which ended in Doha on Apr. 26, came after a prolonged battle between developing and developed countries.

At times it seemed as if the developed countries would succeed in blocking the U.N.’s premier development think tank from continuing its work in some key areas, especially on the global economic crisis, financial issues, macroeconomic policy, and debt.

But eventually the developing countries, negotiating under the umbrella of the Group of 77 and China, succeeded in resisting this onslaught.

All parties hailed as a success the adoption by consensus of the UNCTAD Doha Accord. It was a triumph of multilateral cooperation at a time when there have been many other failures.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO)’s trade round, initiated in 2001 also in Doha, has been unable to conclude its trade liberalisation talks, while climate negotiations have been balanced between success and failure at each recent annual conference.

We are now in an era of complex and difficult international economic relations, in which principles and issues that traditionally were accepted as an integral part of North-South cooperation are now the subjects of serious contention.

At the heart of this sea-change is the concern of many developed countries that they are losing ground to several developing countries in economic performance and global influence, and that to check this trend the old contours of international cooperation have to be redrawn.

Thus, the North seems to be rethinking whether to continue (and if so, then how to continue differently) the practice of providing developing countries with development assistance and trade preferences, acknowledging that developing countries be allowed to take on lesser obligations in agreements on trade or environment in recognition of their lower economic levels.

There are attempts to remove or dilute the “common and differentiated responsibilities” principle in environmental agreements and to downgrade or redefine the extent to which developing countries receive special and differential treatment in trade agreements.

The UNCTAD conference in Doha, known as UNCTAD XIII, almost became a victim of this larger global geopolitical change.

Through the years UNCTAD has been ahead of the curve, providing analyses and proposing solutions vastly different from those of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and often proving right. Recently it continued this tradition in its research on the global financial and economic crisis.

In the UNCTAD XIII process, many developed countries sought to remove or dilute UNCTAD’s mandate to work on finance and macroeconomic issues, arguing that it should stick to only trade-related issues.

Developing countries argued that UNCTAD has long enjoyed a broad mandate to address a wide range of issues, covering not only trade and development, but also finance, technology, and sustainable development.

They and a growing group of NGOs and scholars, including over fifty former senior UNCTAD staff, argued that UNCTAD’s work on the global economy was even more relevant in the present turbulent times.

On Apr. 13, the G77 and China made a strong statement in Geneva that it could no longer make any concessions and that, at a minimum, the Doha conference should reaffirm that UNCTAD continue the work agreed to at the Accra conference in 2008, and take on any additional work that the Doha conference may agree on.

Since the developed countries were not willing to give UNCTAD any new work, the battle in Doha was really about whether or not to reaffirm the Accra Accord of 2008, which would allow UNCTAD to continue its present work.

After often heated negotiations, which lasted till 5 a.m. on the final night, the developing countries succeeded in convincing the developed countries to reaffirm the Accra Accord, to not place new conditions on UNCTAD’s future work, and allow it to continue its work on the financial crisis.

The Doha Accord reaffirms the Accra Accord, which it says remains valid and relevant, and reiterates that UNCTAD remains the focal point for the U.N. for an integrated treatment of trade and development and interrelated issues of finance, technology, investment, and sustainable development.

In closing speeches, all the major groupings of both the South and

North hailed the adoption of the Doha Accord as a significant achievement that gave UNCTAD a clear road map for its work for the next four years.

There was a sense of relief that when international cooperation was again put to a severe test, it emerged from UNCTAD XIII still intact. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Martin Khor is the executive director of the South Centre in Geneva (http://www.southcentre.org).

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