Can All Topics Be Addressed at the WTO? An African Perspective

8 November 2017

Since its inception, the WTO has always been marked by tensions over the scope of the issues it should cover. This article aims to shed light on a debate which, in all likelihood, will only intensify in the future.

The debate on extending the scope of the WTO is not new; it was inherent in the birth of the organisation. From the very beginning, the WTO embraced new fields such as trade in services and intellectual property. Unlike the GATT, which only had statutory power over goods, the broadening of the issues covered by the WTO began as early as the Marrakesh negotiations, through the establishment of thematic working groups where work was to be guided by three principles[1]. The first principle stated that the liberalisation of world trade must continue and must be deepened and broadened to include issues such as trade in services – in addition to trade in goods – but also trade-related issues such as investment and public procurement, among others. The second principle stressed the need to ensure that the expected effects of trade liberalisation were not diluted or undermined by the erection of non-tariff barriers – administrative or private – in particular in the areas of international trade procedures, labour standards and competition policy. The third principle focused on the link between trade liberalisation – presented as a maxim – and global objectives such as safeguarding the environment, promoting sustainable development and protecting human rights.

Is trade a “total social fact”?

The growth and rapid expansion of trade in goods and services and its now recognised role in the creation of wealth and the speeding up of economic and social development within nations have given rise to the feeling that it could take over the entire scope of human reality. It is thus considered by some as a total social fact, i.e. a phenomenon that sets in motion the whole of society and its institutions, according to the French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Trade would thus be considered the most important determinant of relationships and interactions between the nations of the world, from antiquity to present day, influencing their political, economic, social, and even cultural ties in whole or in part. From this point of view, anything that is worthy of interest when it comes to improving human life and that can be traded for the purpose of creating and sharing wealth can be discussed at the WTO. One only has to look at the range of areas already covered by the negotiations to see the extent of its scope: agricultural and industrial goods, intellectual property and its socio-cultural ramifications, investment, services and their hundreds of sub-sectors, fisheries, environmental goods and services, etc.

According to some, the WTO would be the best place to discuss all trade-related issues, since its members all have the same power to accept or reject the issues introduced and since the common rules they adopt are approved by consensus. A clear conflict has quickly emerged on this issue, however, between the members who support and promote the expansion of the WTO’s scope to new issues, mainly developed countries, and those who oppose it, namely most of the developing countries.

The confrontation between these two visions of the WTO and its scope and remit has risen in intensity over the years. It has grown as the multilateral trade system has become more complex. A number of factors have contributed to this complexity, including the multifaceted crises faced by the WTO, the arrival of new member states that has upset earlier balances and caused a shift towards greater multipolarity, and the influence of external stakeholders who have developed a structured – often critical – discourse on the way the WTO operates and the expansionary views of some of its members. These include primarily international civil society organisations, in particular non-governmental organisations, trade union organisations, farmers' movements, etc.

Marking the WTO’s boundaries

The proponents of the expansionist vision of the WTO saw their first call to order only one year after its inception. At the Singapore ministerial in 1996, there was a fierce confrontation over the “social clause.” The compromise – both technical and political – that was reached has helped satisfy both sides, firstly by recognising the importance of “observing internationally recognised core labour standards” and secondly by stating that the International Labour Organization (ILO) is “the competent body to set and deal with these standards.” This provision therefore rejects the WTO's competence in the field of labour standards and regulation.

In truth, even though it is clearly difficult to isolate economic and social reality and draw a watertight line between what is trade and what should be excluded from it, we can, however, define the issues that could be the subject of trade negotiations or regulation at the WTO using ethical principles, justice principles, or economic, environmental, or social sustainability principles. Even those who had so far been in favour of almost unconditional trade liberalisation and the almost complete coverage of economic and social realities by the WTO increasingly accept the possibility of removing certain aspects from trade negotiations based on economically or ethically justified arguments. Social and environmental issues, as well as those related to human rights, health, or food, cannot be subject to the same liberal rules as traditional areas of trade. Trade liberalisation has long been considered by some to be an impassable horizon. It would mark the “end of history,” enshrining the best system for the creation and distribution of wealth and well-being in the world. They now realise that, while liberalisation has undoubtedly resulted in gains, these gains are not distributed equitably between countries and between social groups within countries. Some win while others lose.

At first sight, the introduction of new issues into the ambit of WTO negotiations should not be an issue, provided that the right questions have been raised beforehand and certain conditions are met. Why, for whom, and for what purposes is an issue introduced in WTO talks? What positive or negative effects could the introduction of these issues have on people’s actual lives?

Here are some practical examples. In 2003, in Cancun, developing countries rejected Singapore issues, which had been included in the WTO's work programme since 1996. This was not because they did not recognise the usefulness of investment, public procurement, and competition policy, but rather because they felt that the inclusion of these subjects was premature and that optimal conditions were not yet in place. These issues would have added to the WTO's work programme and placed undue pressure on the meagre technical, financial, and human resources of developing countries. Similarly, while some countries – including African countries – are currently reluctant to commit themselves to the issue of e-commerce at the WTO, it must be acknowledged that this is not because they are unaware of the importance of this topic. E-commerce is already an essential part of economic activity and citizens' lives in many developing countries.

Truth be told, some issues are not rejected by the WTO because of their intrinsic nature. Labour or environmental issues, for example, are inextricably linked to the trade ecosystem. It can be argued that the problems do not come so much from the issues raised as from the system itself. The system’s unfulfilled promises, which partly fuel frustration and criticism of the WTO and multilateralism, have led many stakeholders in the North and South to question the organisation's ability to deal fairly with certain fundamental issues.

Development is the ultimate aim

Development is a right for every human being and every nation. Many countries have already attained developed country status and intend to keep it. An even greater number legitimately dream of achieving it. For a while, the WTO supported this dream and positioned itself as one of the leading global institutions that could support developing countries in achieving their development goals.

This hope is best understood by analysing the Doha Development Agenda, which arose from two major events. The first was an unfortunate event: the failure of the Seattle Ministerial in 1999, which was unable to prove that the WTO would create the right conditions for a fair, open, and equitable global trade system. The second event was more positive: the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, including Goal 8 to build a global partnership for sustainable development. Ambitious quantitative and qualitative targets were set to support the realisation of this objective.

In 2001, the Doha ministerial conference adopted a generous political declaration, which was full of references to development and promises of technical assistance and capacity-building, with particular emphasis on special and differential treatment (S&DT). Unfortunately, the flowers of Doha did not produce the fruit that was promised. Then, in Nairobi, tired of having to justify their broken promises each time, developed countries – particularly the US and the EU – tried to bury Doha. As a result, the Nairobi Ministerial Declaration officially split the WTO in two for the first time: those who wanted to pursue the Doha Agenda and defend the emphasis on a multilateral approach to negotiations, including the choice of issues on the agenda, and those who wanted to use other approaches, such as plurilateral negotiations, regional trade agreements (RTAs) or mega-RTAs

The emphasis on liberalism in the 1990s led some members to refer tasks to the WTO that went beyond its capabilities. These tasks need to be rethought and refocused around regulatory objectives in specific areas directly related to trade, as part of a reform of the WTO for which many stakeholders are calling. Above all, however, it is perhaps necessary to recognise that the field of action has become too broad and touches on interests that have become too varied and complex for consensus to be easy – or even possible – among 164 members.

Author: Cheikh Tidiane Dieye, Executive Director of the Centre africain pour le commerce, l’intégration et le développement (Enda Cacid).

[1] Siroën, Jean-Marc. “L'OMC face à la crise des négociations commerciales.” Les études du CERI, n°160 (2009).

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