WTO meet ends without consensus

Member countries fail to reach agreement on food security right, centrality of development

December 14, 2017 10:04 pm | Updated 10:46 pm IST - Buenos Aires

A delegate takes a selfie before the closing ceremony of the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A delegate takes a selfie before the closing ceremony of the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The December 10-13 meeting of the World Trade Organisation’s highest decision-making body in this ‘city of fair winds’ ended becalmed with the WTO’s 164 members unable to reach a consensus on substantive issues such as the food security right of developing countries and the centrality of development in multilateral trade negotiations.

However, the Ministerial Conference managed to salvage a commitment from member nations to secure a deal by 2019 on banning certain forms of fisheries’ subsidies.

During hectic parleys, the U.S. blocked the demands of more than a 100 developing nations, including India and China, to implement their food security programmes without onerous conditions. Since all major decisions in the WTO need to be taken by ‘the membership as a whole’, even a single country can end up being the deal-breaker.

India, for its part, thwarted attempts by several countries, both developed and developing, to initiate binding discussions on what they called the 21st century challenges to trade — including e-commerce, investment facilitation and proposed norms for small firms. This it did by refusing to budge from its position that members should first resolve outstanding issues (such as food sovereignty) of the ongoing Doha Round negotiations that began in 2001 with a ‘development agenda’ (for improving the trading prospects of developing nations), before considering ‘new issues’.

“Despite our best efforts we could not meet the deadline on [permanent solution to the issue of] public stockholding [for food security purposes]. It’s not the first deadline we missed — but it is still disappointing,” WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said in closing remarks. “We could not even agree on more detailed programmes in many areas. And I know that for many, especially the proponents, the disappointment is particularly bitter.”

‘Don’t give up’

Responding to a question from The Hindu on how the WTO would handle this failure, especially considering that some member nations had failed to comply with certain decisions that were part of previous Ministerial Declarations, Mr. Azevêdo said: “It is disappointing that in some areas, particularly where we had a [Ministerial] mandate as you pointed out, we could not get that outcome. But we don’t give up. We just continue. This is the nature of the multilateral system.”

“I remember the many times that we did not have outcomes. That didn’t mean we stopped. That also didn’t mean that because we didn’t get an outcome, we wouldn’t be able to have them later…The only way to get an outcome in these very difficult issues is when every side shows flexibility. You can’t expect to get everything you want, but you cannot also not engage,” he added.

The meeting ended without a Ministerial Declaration as members could not agree on the centrality of development, which underlies the Doha Round, as well as special and differential treatment for all developing countries. However, but WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell said it was not a precedent-setting development as far as the global trade body is concerned. The meeting of the WTO´s apex decision-making body had previously ended without the member nations being able to adopt a Ministerial Declaration in Seattle (1999), Cancun (2003) and Geneva (in 2009 and partly in 2011), he said.

( The writer is in Buenos Aires at the invitation of India’s Commerce Ministry )

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