WTO to start new talks

Martin Khor


BLURB: At the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference in Geneva last week, a decision was made to start discussions in September on a broad range of issues. Developing countries like Malaysia have thus to be on guard and organise themselves to prevent more issues from entering the WTO's already loaded agenda.  

The WTO Secretariat will also dialogue with NGOs and make its operations more "transparent", in response to growing public opposition to the WTO. This emerged from a press briefing by the WTO director-general at the close of the Conference. MARTIN KHOR reports from Geneva.

 The start of a "broad-based process" of new negotiations at the World Trade Organisation and a major public relations effort to win support from civil society, appear to be the main action plans of the WTO Secretariat, following the conclusion of the WTO's Second Ministerial Conference last week.  

These concerns emerged from a press conference held by WTO director general Renato Ruggiero at the end of the Conference. He said the Conference had launched a "broad-based" negotiating process, in which "every option had been left open." This would lead to the next Ministerial Conference in the United States at the end of 1999. 

Ruggiero also indicated that some WTO members felt an urgent need to respond to public disillusionment against the WTO (which was made clear by the Geneva demonstrations before and during the WTO conference) and by criticisms from environment NGOs that the WTO had negative effects. Greater transparency in the WTO, dialogue with civil society and access for NGOs to give inputs to WTO panels, were all stressed by the Director-General. This had also been a strong theme in the speeches of President Clinton and many other Western leaders during the Conference.

 However Ruggiero spent little time in elaborating on the complaints of developing countries, many of which had raised several issues during the Conference on the problems faced in implementation of the WTO agreements and the continuing marginalisation of LDCs. In his opening remarks, Ruggiero said the Ministerial Conference were marked by seven significant events: 


Asked to elaborate on the WTO's future work programme, he said some countries had emphasised the need to face implementation of the present agreements before launching new issues, and they would not want to enter new negotiations before they succeeded in implementation. 

He added that the question of a sectoral or a comprehensive approach (to future work) like a Round had been left open. "It is left open how to reconcile two objectives: first, comprehensive negotiations where all the interests are taken into account of at the same moment; second, we can't spend seven years to get an agreement," he said. 

Ruggiero was asked whether the Conference had been affected by the growing protests and discontent by the public against the rapid liberalisation pushed by the WTO, as evident by the demonstrations in Geneva, and whether the Northern countries recognised the many problems faced by developing countries in having to implement the Uruguay Round agreements instead of pressurising them into yet more new issues.

 He replied that "seen from the inside, the problems of the outside were seen in a different way." He insisted that "the system works very well", although there were views by some that the system did not take into account the interests of developing counties, and complaints about the problems of marginalisation. 

Ruggiero was asked how the dialogue with civil society will start and how far did the Geneva demonstrations make the WTO realise the need for this dialogue. He replied that he would dedicate his time, after the Ministerial, on how to organise the dialogue, which was not an easy task.

 To another question whether the dialogue with civil society meant the WTO recognised that things were wrong in the past, Ruggiero said there was a sense of urgency expressed by some elegations on the environment issue. 

"Sometimes we are accused of omitting environment objectives. This is not true. The problem is that there are different measures to deal with the environment." 

Ruggiero was asked to comment on the US proposal to enable NGOs to give inputs at WTO panel hearings and whether countries from the South were skeptical about this as there were few NGOs in the South who could participate. 

The Dierctor-General replied that the Secretariat was already doing that (helping NGOs to provide inputs). He said he had received briefs from some NGOs and he had sent these on to members of panels, who had read them. He added that when you see the actions of the panel, you would see they had received the documents and had put them in the annex of the panel findings. "We are acting at the limit but we're doing it," he said. 

To another question on future cooperation with the ILO, Ruggiero said the WTO Secretariat had been invited by President Clinton and others to strengthen dialogue with the ILO Secretariat. "We meet regularly and will continue to do that. We support the ILO Secretariat's efforts to get a declaration on working rights, which will be a major step, in line with the Singapore Declaration." 

To a question whether it was true that ultimately the multilateral agreement on investment will be negotiated in the WTO, Ruggiero replied: "Ministers decided in Singapore they would decide on what would be the follow up when they receive the report of the trade and investment working group in December 1998." 

He added that in December 1998, there will already be a process of negotiations on various issues, so this question is in the pipeline of this process. "We will have to wait for the Ministerial Conference in the US to know the follow up." 

Asked why so much time was spent on the issue of electronic commerce when so few countries are involved in e-commerce, Ruggiero said in just a few weeks the US was able to get the support of all delegations, as everyone understood they had a stake in the issue. "We agreed to a wide programme, not just agreeing to not impose customs duty on transmissions, but a wide programme on trade related issues of electronic commerce up to the next Conference." 

Asked on the follow up to the high-level meeting on least developed countries (LDCs) and what was the fate of these countries, the Director-General said the Conference agreed to continue the programme for LDCs. He said the WTO had held round-table meetings with almost all LDCs, and this would continue as it "gives the human dimension to globalisation." He said the WTO should organise a Ministerial meeting to take stock. 

"By the next negotiations, we should have free trade for products of LDCs, as was agreed to by many delegations. I hope there will be consensus by the next Ministerial."

 A journalist from China remarked that Ruggiero had said the WTO could not afford seven years to conclude another Round but it had taken China ten years to try to join the WTO. What could the WTO do to accelerate the accession? 

"I understand your view," he replied. "I think there's a strong will to go as fast as possible... I hope we are on a good track."