Rules: Members to Review RTA Transparency Mechanism; Make Little Headway on Fish

22 December 2010

WTO members agreed this month to launch a review of a provisional mechanism for examining the rules in regional trade agreements, a step towards making the four-year old system permanent. The negotiating group on rules also examined proposals in the Doha Round talks on disciplining fisheries subsidies and updating anti-dumping rules, but sources said that little of what was discussed was new.

The transparency mechanism, launched on a provisional basis in 2006, provides for members who have concluded an RTA to promptly notify the WTO and supply information about the accord in question (see Bridges Weekly, 6 July 2006). This information in turn serves as the basis for a non-judgmental "factual report" by the WTO secretariat for governments to consider. (Most RTAs would be examined in the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements, but

‘South-South' agreements among developing countries would be examined in the Committee on Trade and Development.)

Ambassador Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago said that members believe that the mechanism has performed satisfactorily, although could use some fine-tuning.

When it approved the RTA transparency mechanism in 2006, the General Council, the WTO's top permanent decision-making body, said that members could review and modify the mechanism and make it permanent as part of an eventual Doha Round accord. The review, which members agreed to launch on 13 December, should start in earnest in February 2011. The chair asked delegations to put forward their views on "systemic issues" related to RTAs. A prominent example of such issues is the ill-defined clause in GATT Article XXIV that effectively provides a carve-out for bilateral and regional trade agreements from the WTO's standard non-discrimination provisions for goods trade - so long as the bilateral and regional deals in question cover "substantially all the trade" among the countries concerned. What exactly "substantially all" means is not defined, and the number of exceptions and partner-specific provisions in different RTAs varies wildly. Other examples are rules of origin in RTAs, and the implications of RTAs for development.

On fisheries subsidies, sources reported that the chair's consultations did not see members express any new views, as delegates discussed three proposals. These included one from Korea (TN/RL/GEN/168), which has pushed back against calls for far-reaching disciplines on governments' ability to support the fisheries sector, focusing on preventing overfishing through better management; one from Brazil, India, China and Mexico (TN/RL/GEN 163) calling for exceptions for developing countries; and one from Australia (TN/RL/GEN 167) calling for a specific prohibition on destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling.

One delegate opined that while the fisheries subsidy talks might currently be in repeat mode, with countries reiterating well-known positions, this might change if governments move towards an end-game in the broader negotiations. At that point, the source suggested, the talks could become even tougher, as commercial interests that benefit from existing support schemes would dig their heels in and attempt to dissuade their national governments from making concessions.

Delegates also discussed several unresolved issues in the anti-dumping negotiations, such as how alleged dumping might affect nascent industries.

The rules talks are set to resume in late January, as part of the planned resumption of intensive negotiations across the spectrum of issues covered by the Doha Round.

ICTSD reporting.

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