August 31, 2001 – Plans for a new comprehensive round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade negotiations should be dropped, Friends of the Earth International said today. The call follows mounting opposition from developing countries to a new round of talks, which could begin at the next WTO Ministerial Conference in Qatar in November [1]. An extraordinary meeting of a select group of invited WTO members is being held today and tomorrow (31st August/ 1st September) in Mexico to attempt to finalise the agenda for Qatar [2].

Current WTO membership stands at 142 nations, the vast majority being developing countries. However, only about 18 delegations have been invited to take part in the Mexico meeting, including the EU, the US and Japan, all of which generally favour a new round. Also invited are India, Egypt and Brazil who are broadly against the idea. Recently, however, the positions between developed and developing countries have become increasingly polarised and acrimonious.

Today’s meeting could make or break prospects for the launch of comprehensive trade negotiations at the Qatar Ministerial Conference. Many developing countries oppose a new round of negotiations. They argue that previous rounds have brought few benefits and that they are having difficulty meeting current implementation schedules. A new round that includes additional issues such as investment will only compound these concerns [3]. Concerns include:

  • restrictions on countries’ ability to regulate foreign corporate investments, with severe implications for the environment and people;
  • further liberalisation of services into environmentally and socially sensitive sectors such as water, energy, tourism and transport;
  • current agreements on issues like agriculture and intellectual property rights, which have been biased towards rich countries and companies, and have worked against poorer nations;
  • the lack of democracy in the WTO. It reflects the views of powerful trading nations, sidelining the priorities of developing countries

Friends of the Earth, together with other non-governmental organisations, oppose the launch of a new round of comprehensive trade negotiations because the current system favours developed countries and huge transnationals, at the expense of developing countries and people.

Tim Rice, Trade Policy Coordinator at Friends of the Earth, said: “The WTO must not ignore the concerns of developing countries and civil society with respect to the launch of a comprehensive round of trade talks. The whole system desperately needs a complete overhaul to meet the needs of everyone in the twenty-first century. This should put fairer trade before profit with the benefits shared more equally.”

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the meeting. Developing countries will come under intense pressure to tow the line and agree to a new round. India, one of the most influential developing countries, has stated however that it will not reverse their opposition to a new round [4].

[1] The 4th WTO Ministerial Conference will be held in Qatar. The ministerial is the highest decision making body of the WTO and meets every two years. A new round of talks would negotiate further reductions in industrial tariffs, agree to progress the in-built agenda (under the Uruguay Round, members are already mandated to further negotiate and review current agreements such as agriculture and services), and potentially bring in new issues such as investment.

[2] There is considerable secrecy surrounding the Mexico meeting. The venue of the meeting has yet to be made public in an attempt to limit opportunities for NGOs to organise and voice opposition. It is believed that the latest list of WTO members that will attend the meeting is as follows: the EU, the US, Japan, Canada, Australia, Egypt, South Africa, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Uruguay, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Jamaica, India, Brazil, Tanzania, Singapore and Mexico (as facilitator).

[3] 1998 saw the collapse of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The MAI was intended to open up national economies to foreign investment, and would have reduced governmental control over inward investment while increasing the rights and legal status of transnational corporations. Those promoting the MAI, such as the EU, have transferred their attention to the WTO and hope to introduce investment as a ‘new
issue’ in the proposed Round.

[4] The Indian Prime Minister is on record as saying that their opposition to a new round is ‘shared by many developing nations and many people in the developed nations’.