Geneva: India on Thursday denounced the World Trade Organization (WTO) secretariat for vitiating the overall negotiating climate by acting as a “proponent” and seeking outcomes on issues such as e-commerce and investment facilitation, even as a large majority of members remain opposed to them, people familiar with the development said.
In a “member-driven organization”, India asked, “what gives the secretariat the authority or mandate to propose next steps or multilateral outcomes on subjects on which discussions have not even begun in the WTO”, according to an African trade envoy who asked not to be identified.
At a closed-door meeting of heads of delegations on Thursday to review the state of play in negotiations, India expressed grave concerns at the manner in which the Nairobi ministerial declaration (of December 2015) was being given the short shrift and the questionable role played by the WTO secretariat disregarding members’ views, the envoy said.
India’s trade envoy Anjali Prasad, according to people present at the meeting, said issues decided at the WTO’s tenth ministerial conference in Nairobi, at which members had agreed to give primacy to the needs and interests of developing and least-developed countries, were now being pushed aside by new ones such as e-commerce at the behest of some members.
“It is almost as if at least some part of ministerial declarations remain merely on pieces of paper to be placed on the shelf after each ministerial rather than directions to be acted upon,” Prasad said, according to a South American trade envoy, who also did not want to be identified.
There seemed to be selective “visibility and hearing” in favour of controversial new issues, while issues identified by “many developing and least-developed members to correct or rebalance existing asymmetrical rules” are ignored, India maintained.
Further, value-loaded assessments offered by officials chairing the various bodies to assess the state of play in negotiations had become the order of the day, said Prasad.
Ahead of meetings of G20 leaders in the first week of March in Berlin, the WTO secretariat has already presented its views. The presentations objected to by India are titled: E-commerce, WTO Rules and Regional Trade Agreements and Investment Facilitation: WTO’s Contribution to the TIWG Discussion. TIWG stands for Trade and Investment Working Group.
Coming down heavily on the presentations, India reportedly asked WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo, who is also the chair of the trade negotiations committee: “Were the contents of these presentations discussed by members and was there a consensus on the propositions contained therein that the WTO should be encouraged to launch a dialogue on strengthening trade and investment policy coherence or that there should be further discussions towards a multilateral outcome on e-commerce?”
According to several trade envoys, India went on to state that “such presentations by the secretariat within or outside the WTO go far beyond the remit of the functions of the WTO secretariat, and violate the letter and spirit of the agreement establishing the WTO.”
Commenting on the two presentations, the Indian envoy said they “convey to my delegation that the WTO secretariat holds a brief for certain constituency of members, thereby raising a question on its impartiality and international character as required in the agreement establishing the WTO”.
India said it is imperative that the unfinished work of the Doha Development Agenda and in the decisions taken at the WTO’s ninth ministerial meeting in Bali in December 2013 and the tenth ministerial conference in 2015 “must get precedence over any other areas which can only be negotiated multilaterally”.
“There needs to be urgent constructive engagement on public stockholding programmes (for food security) and special safeguard mechanism without linkages with other areas of agriculture negotiations,” India said.
On e-commerce, India said discussions must take place in accordance with the 1998 work programme, suggesting any discussion on rules for e-commerce is “premature”.
“This is particularly so given the highly monopolistic nature of the existing e-commerce market which would result in the benefits of any rules being concentrated in the hands of a few while at the same time constraining the policy space of the developing countries to develop their e-commerce space,” India maintained.
India cautioned about the risk of a deepening “divide” in case “undue importance is give to the so-called new issues where even the narratives are still not clear, at the cost of relegating to the background the implementation of earlier decisions in which substantive work has already been done over the last decade”.
“Needless to add that any attempts to cherry-pick ministerial decisions or a few members projecting consensus on issues where none exists would also seriously undermine the credibility of the WTO,” Ambassador Prasad said, according to an East Asian trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.
Several countries shared India’s concerns about the manner in which negotiations are being conducted to suit the interests of some powerful members and the speed with which some new issues are being pushed.
Along with India, several African countries said the 2015 Nairobi ministerial process should not be repeated since it produced outcomes that failed to reflect members’ views.
“On process,” Uganda trade envoy Christopher Onyanga Aparr stated, “we would like to call upon you Mr Chairman to put in place a credible process that does not seek to replicate Nairobi... It has to be bottom-up, transparent, predictable and inclusive... The small ‘club of five’ should be abandoned”.
Azevêdo said there is still a long way to go before members decide the priorities for Buenos Aires. He gave an upbeat assessment on work done to date on fisheries subsidies and suggested that more needs to be done by proponents of public stockholding programmes and the special safeguards mechanism.