WTO General Council Pursues Ministerial Preparations

21 December 1998

The WTO Special Session of General Council last week convened again in an informal intersessional meeting as part of the first phase of lead-up to the Third Ministerial, scheduled for
November-December 1999 in the U.S. The topic of this third, informal session were the Recommendations on the follow-up to the October 1997 High-Level Meeting on Least-Developed Countries. At the meeting, on 14 and 16 December, quite a number of WTO Members took the floor; many of these explained what kind of national actions they have taken in favour of LDCs. Many delegations echoed the points made in two significant and detailed presentations by Egypt on behalf of the African group, and by Bangladesh's Ambassador, Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhuri, also Chair of the WTO Committee on Trade and Development.

In his statement, Dr Chowdhuri considered why LDCs are in the state they are in, what the WTO has done so far and what more the WTO can do. Emphasising that special and differential treatment should not be viewed as an exercise in generosity but rather as a corrective measure aimed at the structural weaknesses of LDCs, in order to ensure balance in the distribution of the benefits of the international trade system. He called for radical thinking in order to improve the usefulness of WTO Agreements for LDCs. Areas mentioned for improvement included the Dispute Settlement Mechanism - which is costly for developing countries to use; the area of labour-intensive services, which are so critical for LDCs, and on safeguards, an area in which there are no rules at the moment. Dr Chowdhuri also pointed out that the difficulties developing countries were already facing in implementing the results of the last round could be exacerbated by new obligations arising from the built-in agenda, and by new issues added to the trade agenda. He insisted on the need to fully implement the results of October 1997's High-Level Meeting and on the need to give effect to market access commitments. He also raised the need to design a fast-track procedure for speedy LDC accession to the WTO.

In his statement, Ambassador Mounir Zahran touched on several of the main points raised by Ambassador Chowdhuri, including the difficulties for LDCs of implementing the results of the Uruguay Round, their concerns regarding the development of new international trade rules, and the difficulty for LDCs of exploiting their rights in the WTO. He also pointed to supply side constraints that hinder LDCs' ability to diversify their production and exports and the need for the international community to take measures in this area. Egypt went into some detail about the implementation of the results of the 1997 High-Level Meeting, relaying some countries' disappointment that the high expectations of the Meeting had not materialised into concrete measures.

In their brief statements, the EU and the U.S. talked about measures they have taken in favour of LDCs and the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the High-Level Meeting.

As a result of this informal session, the Secretariat was asked to compile a listing of the national actions taken over the last year-or-so in favour of LDCs.

Prior meetings in this series of informal sessions of the General Council's Special Session to prepare for the ministerial focussed on the Built-In Agenda and on Implementation of existing agreements and decisions. The General Council will meet again in an informal Special Session on 26-27 January 1999 when it will consider the recommendations concerning other possible future work on the basis of the work programme initiated at Singapore, recommendations arising from consideration of other matters concerning their multilateral trade relations, and organisation of future work. On 25-26 February 1999 the General Council Special Session will hold another formal meeting.

On 16 December WTO Members discussed organisation of future work. Although no clear decision was taken, it appears that there is a general convergence of views. After this "first phase" of
exchanging views, which will end with the 25-26 February General Council Special Session, Members agreed that a "second phase," to continue until the summer break, would give delegations the opportunity to make proposals on how to deal with all the issues raised so far, i.e. how these issues would be dealt with in the 1999 Ministerial and what kind of decisions could be prepared for adoption at the Ministerial. In the autumn, the "third phase" would start, which would consist of the actual drafting of the Ministerial Declaration.

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