CIVIL SOCIETY PERSPECTIVE ON THE 11TH WTO MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE

1.Introduction

The 11th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been penciled for the 10th – 13th December, 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This gathering of trade ministers from the 164 Member States of the WTO comes amid serious concerns from the global citizenry with regards to the growing inequalities and impoverishment of marginalized communities as a result of the evolving global economic architecture, including multilateral trade governance.

Civil society organisations from around the world have raised their concerns regarding the determined push by developed countries and their allies in the developing world to have  a negotiating mandate on issues such as e-commerce at MC11 while deliberately putting on the back-burner the mandated issues under the WTO Doha Development Round and the need to change existing, imbalanced WTO rules which are evidently constraining developing countries’policy space for job creation and development ; including their capacity to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This brief provides a summary of the issue specific concerns of the civil society organisations based on the deliberations in Geneva and other Mini-Ministerial meetings (e.g the Marakesh Mini-Ministerial involving 35 Member states) which aim at shaping the final agenda for the MC11.

2.Proposals regarding E-Commerce

The proponents of e-commerce would like to get an explicit mandate at MC11 to negotiate new multilateral rules on e-commerce which would include inter-alia; prohibiting requirements to hold data locally; to have a local presence in the country; no border taxes on digital products; prohibitions on regulating cross-border data transfers; and even prohibitions on requiring open source software in government procurement contracts.

Civil society organisations querry the economic rationale of excluding digitally traded goods from contributing to the national fiscus while traditionally traded goods normally do so. Privacy and data protection are fundamental human rights which cannot be abandoned in the interests of trade. Additionally, having binding WTO rules to allow transnational corporations to transfer data around the world without restrictions would deny countries and citizens the right to benefit from their own data and intelligence as well as restrict implementation of appropriate data privacy and consumer protection measures.

While civil society organisations support efforts by developing countries to bridge the digital divide, transfer technology and obtain financing for infrastructure and ICTs, the WTO is not the proper forum to negotiate these issues and therefore there should be no new mandate on e-commerce at MC11.

3.Proposals to limit the scope and effects of public interest regulation in the context of GATS.

The proposed rules on Domestic Regulation in the context of WTO GATS negotiations seek to limit national disciplines in the following areas :

  • Qualification requirements and procedures
  • Licensing requirements and procedures, and,
  • Technical standards.

The open ended and vague terminology used in the proposals are designed to minimise sovereign governments’ regulation and maximise the lobbying power of transnational corporations. Giving the WTO jurisdiction on labour, tax, environmental or safety laws would severely undermine the regulatory sovereignty of countries. This will also run contrary to the SDGs thrust on expanding access to and quality of many public services such as telecommunications and financial services which are supplied by the private sector. Therefore, no disciplines should be agreed in the area of Domestic Regulation at MC11.

4.Fisheries Subsidies

The focus of negotiations in this area is to tackle the problem of overfishing due to subsidies provided by governments to fisheries. In this area there is a clear mandate for a pro-development and pro-environment outcome. What is worrisome is the insistence of developed countries on rules in this area that have the potential to undermine the development aspirations of developing countries. Protecting the policy space of developing countries and their ability to support small-scale and artisanal fishers must be at the heart of any outcome.

 Thus, the developmental and economic policy space of developing countries must be maintained while those nations that have contributed most to the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and overfishing must agree to eliminate harmful subsidies. Civil society organisations maintain that the management of fisheries resources must be maintained outside the WTO.

5.Agricultural rules must prioritize food security and food sovereignty.

The huge amounts of domestic subsidies in the developed countries have the effect of distorting agricultural trade and harm other countries’domestic producers .They  result in overproduction and artifically depress world prices adversely impacting farmers’ livelihoods in countries which should benefit from agricultural trade or produce for domestic consumption. Thus, a major outcome in Buenos Aires should be to reduce the amount of subsidies under the domestic support pillar.

Developing countries should also be able to increase tariffs to protect their domestic production from import surges arising from  subsidisation through recourse to the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM). However, use of this instrument is being fiercely resisted by developed countries. A workable outcome on SSM at the upcoming Ministerial would greatly enhance developing countries’ ability to achieve food security, promote rural development and safeguard farmers’ livelihoods and would be a step towards removing WTO constraints on food sovereignty.

Most WTO Members agree that domestic public stockholding programs should not be constrained by antiquated WTO rules. WTO Members agreed to find a permanent solution to the public stockholding programs by December of this year.   However, changes have been steadfastly blocked by the US, EU, Australia and other big agribusiness exporters. The MC11 must deliver a positive resolution on t he public stockholding issue that allows all developing countries to implement food security programs without onerous restrictions that are not even demanded of develoed countries ‘trade distorting subsidies.

6.More Flexibility for Development Policies

In addition to transforming the global rules governing agriculture trade, developing countries have also advocated for other changes to existing WTO rules to increase flexibility that would allow them to enact policies that would support their development. Some concrete proposals have been made by the G90 to change WTO rules which constrain the implementation of pro-development policies.

These changes include those that would allow developing countries to promote domestic manufacturing capabilities; stimulate transfer of technology; promote access to medicines and safeguard regional integration. The G90 proposals should be accepted at the MC11 as proposed without being conditioned on further market access concessions from developing countries.

In conclusion, civil society organisations reiterate the imperativeness of a democratic, transparent and sustainable multilateral trading system. The secretive and undemocratic practice of green room negotiations which have characterised the WTO since its inception should be abandoned in favour of a transparent and member driven process that leads to outcomes that are consistent with the multilaterally agreed SDGs.

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