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WTO at a ‘crossroads' as Geneva Ministerial looms

18th November 2009

By: Christy van der Merwe


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The 153-member World Trade Organisation (WTO) found itself at a "crossroads" as it prepared for the Geneva Ministerial meeting, which would take place from November 31 to December 2, 2009, South African commentators asserted on Wednesday.

Institute for Global Dialogue senior researcher: multilateral trade Brendan Vickers said that, after 15 years of existence, a deep political crisis of trade multilateralism has emerged at the WRO, with the Doha Development round characterised by drifts, deadlocks, and few dividends.


The crossroads, explained Vickers, had been reached as a result of multipolarity, itself fuelled by: increased membership numbers; unclear boundaries, as issues such as climate change and labour encroached on trade governance; and by the proliferation of regional trade agreements.

Another important factor was the sharp decline of world trade as a result of the global economic crisis, which had also spurred increased protectionism through various measures, from bailouts to eco-labelling.


An absence of leadership was also viewed as a problem.

"I agree that the WTO is at a crossroads. It is not terminal yet, but such an outlook is not implausible. There is a need to focus on structural issues, but this should not distract from concluding the [Doha Development] round," added University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business researcher Dr Mills Soko.

The seventh Ministerial meeting in Geneva was likely to be focused on "dull housekeeping" issues, and the global economic environment, said Vickers, adding that the real value of the Ministerial meeting would be WTO systemic reforms.

The meeting would allow member states to voice opinions on, and make recommendations regarding the reform of the WTO, as well as the shape, and decision making processes of the multilateral trade negotiating system.

Department of Trade and Industry chief director of policy Randall Williams said that South Africa was finalising the proposal that it would take forward to the Ministerial conference, which would likely be a submission of recommendations regarding reform within the WTO.

India has already put forward a number of recommendations.

Williams stated that the South African delegation felt that the overall objective of the WTO needed to be clarified, and the organisation should commit to a development agenda.

Formal and informal decision-making processes should also be clarified, and the consensus decision-making process could be improved.

The suggestion of rules and guidelines, or a code of conduct for non-agricultural market access negotiating track chairpersons, would also be put forward, as a chairperson should be impartial and objective, and facilitate consensus. This was however, not always the case.

It was added that the WTO should strengthen its relationship with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which had significant analytical and research capacity.

"These issues need to be debated, and we are not naïve to believe that they can be solved overnight.

"We must also be aware that there may be attempts to rollback gains already made by developing countries," said Williams.

He concluded that South Africa would continue to strive for a more inclusive and strengthened WTO.

A deadline of reaching agreement on the Doha Development Round of negotiations has been set for 2010, and the Ministerial meeting would not be a negotiating platform, although Brazil has called for side meetings regarding Doha to take place.



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