Outcome of the WTO Doha Ministerial and implications for Bangladesh

Debapriya Bhattacharya

  However, Bangladesh's ability to effectively address the Doha Agenda will primarily depend on its ability to take forward the capacity-building exercise in trade related issues. In Bangladesh's upcoming journey on the WTO highway, the Ministry of Commerce, as per practice, will be in the driving seat. Thus, strengthening of this lead agency through improvement of the capacity of its WTO Cell, better coordination among other relevant public bodies including the country's Geneva Mission and effective utilization of private sector input remains a primary challenge. Understandably, given the enormity of the task, this has to be accomplished through a collective endeavour involving the government, private sector and other competent actors from the civil society of Bangladesh.

The fourth session of the WTO Ministerial Conference, the highest policy-making body of the organization, was held in Doha, Qatar from November 9 to 14, 2001 (with an overrun of 24 hours). The main texts which were agreed at the end of the conference included the following three: (i) The Ministerial Declaration, (ii) The Decision on Implementation-Related Issues and Concerns, and (iii) The TRIPS Agreement and Public Health.

The two other major events of the Doha Ministerial had been: (a) the accession of China and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) to the WTO and (b) adoption of a WTO waiver for the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement (successor of the Lome Agreement).

The backdrop of the Doha Ministerial was underpinned by deep and divergent expectations from the conference on the part of the developing and developed countries. Whilst the former insisted on "full and faithful" implementation of the obligations undertaken during the earlier Uruguay Round of negotiations, the latter campaigned for a new round of negotiations to speed up global trade and investment liberalization. The Doha Ministerial, at a point, seemed to be at the verge of collapse due to North-South conflicts. Ultimately, through a complex process of pressure and persuasion, a "consensus" was evolved which largely reflected the broad pro-liberalisation agenda of the European Union and the USA, while giving minor concessions to the developing countries.

Thus, one observes, the jubilant mood of the OECD countries and the WTO regarding the Doha documents as against the rather subdued expressions of the Southern governments. The global civil society has been largely critical about the Doha outcome.

As the dust settles after the Doha Ministerial, a new battle seems to be beginning on how to interpret the carefully worded compromises captured in the Declaration. The Work Programme contained in the Declaration is less ambitious than the negotiation agenda proposed under the much-hyped "Millennium Round". Nonetheless a round, styled as the "Doha Development Round" has been launched under which wide-ranging and parallel negotiations will take place starting from January 2002. The upcoming talks will continue till 2005 under the supervision of the newly created Trade Negotiations Committee and the outcomes will be accepted as a "single undertaking" meaning nothing is agreed till everything is agreed.

Bangladesh as one of the leaders of the least-developed countries played an energetic role during the preparatory phase of the Ministerial. A high profile national delegation, led by the Commerce Minister, took an active part in the deliberations of the conference. However, the Doha outcomes could not satisfactorily address the critical demands of Bangladesh, particularly regarding a binding multilateral declaration providing for quota-free, duty-free market access to products originating in the LDC defined by realistic Rules of Origin.

Nonetheless, in order to further the country's interest in the future, one has to be pragmatic and capitalize on the commitments made at the Doha Ministerial and identify the areas of priorities for Bangladesh in the upcoming negotiations.

The Doha Documents

TRIPS Agreement and Public Health

The decision to have a broader interpretation of the TRIPS Agreement had been among the rare victories for the developing countries at the Doha Ministerial. The Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health allows the developing countries to override patents in the interest of the public through issuance of "Compulsory Licencing". The decision further provides that the LDC Members including Bangladesh will not need to enforce patent rights with respect to pharmaceutical products till January 2016.

The TRIPS document adopted at Doha has particular relevance for Bangladesh not only because of its potential for accessing live-saving medicine at affordable price, but also for the new found opportunity for developing the national pharmaceutical industry in the context of the extension of the transition period.

In connection with future work programme on TRIPS, it would be useful for Bangladesh to identify the products on which the country can benefit from additional protection for geographical indication.

Decision on Implementation-Related Issues and Concerns

The Decision on Implementation-Related Issues and Concerns was adopted to reflect the difficulties and resource constraints that have been encountered by the developing countries in various areas in realizing obligations under a number of WTO Agreements.

The document identifies two groups of implementation issues one set of "Agreed" issues and another set of "Outstanding" ones. Regrettably, the latter set includes many issues of vital interest to the developing countries. The most noteworthy among these is the section on "Textiles and Clothing". Subsequent to fierce US resistance to accelerated and effective liberalization of the textile and clothing trade, the relevant paragraph of the document merely 'requests the Council for Trade in Goods to examine' a range of proposals suggested by developing countries and report back by July 2002.

Significant implementation issues were not settled in Doha, but have been slated for further negotiations as part of the "single undertaking". This implies that the outstanding implementation concerns of the developing countries will have to be addressed by developed countries in order to ensure a successful conclusion of the envisaged new round.

Among the outstanding issues, Bangladesh remains directly interested in such issues as calculation of growth level under Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, S&D provisions, procedures on antidumping and countervailing duties, subsidies etc.

The Ministerial Declaration

Preamble: The preamble of the Ministerial Declaration has an unqualified pro-liberalization tone. One may feel a bit disappointed with the preamble as it does not make may specific reference to the 2015 Millennium Development Target as the overarching objective of the WTO. However, the concerned paras make several references to the need to pay special attention to the developing and least-developed countries with a view to improving their participation in the multilateral trading system.

On labour standards, the preamble reaffirms the "Singapore Consensus" (1996) regarding core labour standards. However, there is a separate paragraph establishing that countries should not be prevented from pursuing a range of "non-trade concerns".

Agriculture: The text on agriculture commits the Members to comprehensive negotiations aimed at: substantial improvement in market access, reductions of all forms of export subsidies (with a view to phasing-out), and substantial reductions in trade-distorting domestic support. These are to be done "without pre-judging the outcome of the negotiations". Notwithstanding this, Cairns Group including the USA, Australia and Thailand may like to declare its victory over European Union on the agriculture issue at Doha.

While there is a strong text indicating that special and differential treatment for the developing countries will be an integral part of the negotiation, the developing countries failed to include a "Development Box" in the Agreement on Agriculture which would have broadened the scope of allowable public supports in this sector in the developing countries.

With a view to effectively participate in the upcoming negotiations on agriculture, Bangladesh needs to have a proper assessment of its domestic production needs, import requirement and export potential in the light of removal of subsidies and tariff binding commitments. The country may also like to examine the S&D provisions to which it wants to give effect under The Agreement on Agriculture.

Services: There was little debate on services at Doha. The Declaration endorsed the on-going negotiations and reviews provided for under the General Agreement on Trade in Services. One of the submitted proposals currently awaiting consideration relates to removal of procedural bottlenecks regarding movement of natural persons.

Bangladesh needs to identify sectors where it has opportunities to send labour abroad as well as to pursue for commitments in these areas. The country will also have to carefully make commitments to liberalize its own service sectors.

Industrial Tariffs: The para on market access for non-agricultural products agrees to negotiations "to reduce, or as appropriate, eliminate tariffs, including reduction or elimination of tariff peaks, high tariffs and tariff escalation". The text is a relative success for the developing countries, particularly as it allows for "less than full reciprocity" in tariff reductions between developed and developing countries. However, submissions from the developing countries for an impact assessment of earlier liberalization was ignored.

Currently Bangladesh has binding commitment on 146 non-agricultural products, which constitute only 3% of total non-agricultural products. As Bangladesh will now be obliged to bind all non-agricultural products, it will have to decide on the binding tariff rate on these products. It may be pointed out that once Bangladesh binds its tariffs at current operative rate, there will be no option to increase the tariffs in future. Concurrently, it is also essential to identify the products on which Bangladesh wants to see substantial tariff reduction from other countries.

Singapore Issues: The so-called four Singapore Issues are: (i) Competition Policy, (ii) Investment Policy, (iii) Transparency in Government Procurement, and (iv) Trade Facilitation. These four issues constituted one of the fiercely fought battles at Doha. The European Union pursued the first two, while the USA was interested in the latter two. Most developing countries wished to keep these out of the ambit of negotiations. At the fag end of the Ministerial, a compromise was reached suggesting that studies and pre-negotiation preparations will continue till the Fifth Ministerial when a decision will be taken on modalities of negotiations based on "explicit consensus".

Working Groups have been created at the Doha Ministerial to address the issues of the Competition Policy, Investment Policy and Transparency in Government Procurement. UNCTAD, along with other agencies, is to provide capacity building support, responding to the needs of developing and least-developed countries in pursuing the work programme.

WTO Rules: The concerns about WTO rules at the Doha Ministerial largely related to the widespread dissatisfaction with the abuse of anti-dumping rules. The USA had to face a large coalition of countries asking for improving the disciplines for application of antidumping duties.

In the upcoming negotiations on WTO rules on antidumping duties, subsidy and countervailing measures, Bangladesh may seek exemption from anti-dumping action for a few years and, where that is not possible, it may seek to increase in the threshold level for LDCs. Moreover simplification of the investigation procedures to be applied by LDCs also needs to be pursued.

Trade and Environment: In spite of a valiant fight from the developing countries, the European Union was successful in introducing a substantial text on environment into the draft. Important features of the text include a commitment to negotiations on the relationship between WTO rules and Multilateral Trading Agreements (MTAs), elimination/reduction of tariff barriers on environmental goods and eco-labelling. However, "precautionary principle", considered to be a potential source of eco-protectionism, has been kept out of negotiations.

Debt & Finance and Technology Transfer: At the request of a large number of developing countries, the WTO is to set up two new Working Groups to examine the relationship between trade, debt and finance as well as the relationship between trade and technology transfer. The General Council will report to the Fifth Ministerial on the progress of the work of these Working Groups.

E-Commerce: The Declaration agrees to continue the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce. Furthermore, it was decided that the Members will not impose any duties on electronic transmission until the Fifth Session.

Technical Cooperation and Capacity Building: The four paras on technical cooperation and capacity building demonstrate all the necessary sensitivities to the concerns of the developing countries, least developed countries, acceding countries, transitional economies and countries not having representation in Geneva. Regrettably, the language used in the text is of the "best endeavours" kind which does not provide for adequate capacity building as a pre-condition for implementation by the developing countries of their WTO commitments.

Least-Developed Countries and Small Economies. While the two paras on LDC do recognize many of the concerns of the poorest members of the WTO, it remains to be seen whether these exhortations result in any meaningful market access, support for diversification of production and export base, and trade-related technical assistance for the LDCs.

The LDCs were particularly disappointed that the commitment to the objective of "duty-free and quota-free market access for products originating from the LDCs" were merely reiterated without a deadline, or any negotiating framework.

The agreement on a Work Programme to look at the particular problems of the small, vulnerable economies is a welcome addition to the Declaration.

Special and Differential Treatment: The Declaration mentions that all special and differential treatment provisions shall be reviewed with a view to strengthening these and making them more precise, effective and operational. A report in this regard is to be submitted to the WTO General Council by July 2002. It is to be keenly observed to what extent the espoused process will be successful in turning the S&DT provisions into binding commitments.

Challenges for Bangladesh

Doha Ministerial is not the end, rather beginning of a process. It signals the inception of another arduous and protracted phase of multilateral trade negotiations under the WTO. In the immediate future, this phase will continue till the fifth Ministerial to be held in Mexico by the end of 2003.

In this context the foremost task would be to closely read the Doha documents along with the "built-in agenda" of the Uruguay Round agreements to identify their implications for Bangladesh. Given the broad breadth of the issues on the table, the country will possibly have to identify the areas of priority where it would have to focus its scarce resources.

Along with locating our areas of primary interest in the evolving WTO process, Bangladesh will also have to revisit its negotiating strategies including alliance building. The Doha experience suggests that there is a strong need to review Bangladesh's overwhelming emphasis on LDC solidarity, particularly given that the African DLCs opted for a joint platform of African-Caribbean Pacific Island countries along with other countries for African at the Doha Ministerial.

One interesting development in this respect, in the context of the SAARC is the 15 point declaration of the Pre-Doha meeting of the representatives of the SAARC countries in New Delhi in August 2001, and more recently the call for joint initiatives to address issues of regional interest in the WTO which came from the 11th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu.

However, Bangladesh's ability to effectively address the Doha Agenda will primarily depend on its ability to take forward the capacity-building exercise in trade related issues. In Bangladesh's upcoming journey on the WTO highway, the Ministry of Commerce, as per practice, will be in the driving seat. Thus, strengthening of this lead agency through improvement of the capacity of its WTO Cell, better coordination among other relevant public bodies including the country's Geneva Mission and effective utilization of private sector input remains a primary challenge. Understandably, given the enormity of the task, this has to be accomplished through a collective endeavour involving the government, private sector and other competent actors from the civil society of Bangladesh.

Bhattacharya is Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 13, 2002


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