WTO General Council: Document Derestriction, High-Level Meetings
Meeting for its last session of 1998 last week, the WTO General Council had a busy agenda. Items of interest to BRIDGES readers included the High-Level Symposia on Trade and Environment and on Trade and Development, the review of the 1996 document derestriction decision, the appointment of the new WTO Director-General, and the report of the heads of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO on the issue of coherence. On the latter point, no agreement was reached and the General Council meeting was suspended until 18 December, when Members will meet again to attempt to reach a decision. As BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest goes to press, Thailand's first deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi seemed to be favourite as next Director-General.
Prior to its session, the General Council met as the Trade Policy Review Body and held a discussion on developments in international trade and the trading system, based on the WTO's annual report and in particular, on the report's chapter 4 which examines the process of globalisation and the impact of trade liberalisation on it. Representatives of more than 50 WTO Members spoke, mentioning inter alia the relationship between regional trade agreements and the multilateral trading system, the need to speed up accession procedures and the necessity of increasing technical assistance for developing countries. The EU mentioned the need for a new round of multilateral trade talks, and several countries lamented the lack of liberalisation in agriculture and textiles.
There was no real discussion of document derestriction during last week's General Council meeting. A new proposal for revising the 1996 document derestriction decision has however been informally put forward. It differs only from the prior proposal (reported on in BRIDGES Weekly
Trade News Digest, Vol. 2, No. 40, October 19, 1998, and BRIDGES Between Trade and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 7, p.3) in that it further delays derestriction of documents, in particular panel reports. General Council Chair, Canada's Ambassador John Weekes, submitted the new proposal after holding consultations with delegations. According to the current proposal, only documents have been translated and are available in all three WTO official languages can be proposed for derestriction. The proposal before last week's General Council makes no change in that reports of panels will remain restricted until they have been circulated to members. It contains a change over the current situation and the previous proposal in that it proposes that after the panel report has been issued to the dispute's parties, the "Findings and Conclusions" portion of the report shall be circulated as unrestricted as soon as it is available in all three language versions. The previous proposal would also have allowed the "Descriptive" part of the report to be made available as an unrestricted document in its original language. One is obviously witness here to a tug of war between the principles of linguistic equality and timely public availability of documents. It is expected that the issue of document derestriction will be on the agenda of 1999's first session of the General Council, currently scheduled for 10 February, and that the Chair, assisted by Deputy Director General Anwarul Hoda, will hold further consultations with delegations between now and then.
The General Council confirmed the objectives, dates and agendas of the High Level Symposium on Trade and Development and the High Level Symposium on Trade and Environment. The modalities for NGO participation are not yet known. The High Level Symposium on Trade and Environment will take place on 15-16 March and will consider: Linkages between trade and environmental policies; Synergies between trade liberalisation, environmental protection, sustained economic growth and sustainable development; and Interaction between the trade and environment communities. The High Level Symposium on Trade and Development will take place on 17-18 March and will consider: Links between trade and development; Trade and development prospects for developing countries; and Further integration of developing countries, including least- developed countries, in the trading system. In the context of the latter meeting, Egypt submitted a very detailed document entitled "Special and Differential Treatment for Developing Countries in the Multilateral Trading System."
On the issue of coherence of policies promoted by the Bretton Woods institutions and the trade system, a report was presented by the three managing heads highlighting areas where co-ordination among the three bodies is taking place. Among the new opportunities for co-operation mention is made of how the "expertise that the IMF and the World Bank have in areas being considered for the WTO - such as foreign direct investment and issues related to sustainable development - can contribute to the WTO's efforts to enhance the trade community's understanding of these issues." The report also enumerates the possibility of the Bank assisting with the assessment of impact of further liberalisation in industrial tariffs, agriculture and other sensitive sectors for developing countries. (See WTO document WT/GC/13).
"Thai seen front-runner in WTO leadership contest," REUTERS, December 14, 1998; ICTSD Internal Files.