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Missed deadlines

Norman Girvan (1)
The Greater Caribbean This Week

In the past month we have had a typical indication of the wide range of trade negotiation processes in which the countries of the Greater Caribbean are engaged.

On March 31 several key deadlines in the WTO process were reached--and missed.

From March 31 to April 4, the 3rd Round of negotiations for a US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) took place in Eel Salvador. And in mid-April the Trade Negotiating Committee of the FTAA met in Puebla, Mexico to review the final phase of the negotiations due to be completed at the end of 2004.

The missed deadlines in the WTO passed almost without notice. Yet it is the WTO that sets the framework for regional and sub-regional agreements such as the FTAA and CAFTA. In September of this year Mexico, the largest ACS country, will host the 5th WTO Ministerial Meeting in the Caribbean resort of Cancun. As host country and Chair, Mexico also has a strong interest in seeing a successful result.

At the 4th WTO Ministerial Meeting in November 2001 commitments were made to address several issues of concern to developing countries, arising out of the flawed operation of the Marrakech Agreement, which launched the WTO agreement in 1994.

Among the most important of these were deficiencies in the implementation of special and differential treatment (S&DT) for developing countries and of Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Public Health.

A time table was agreed at Doha for certain steps to have been completed by March 31, 2003. Agreement was to have been reached on provisions to give concrete effect to S&DT and TRIPS and Public Health. In services, WTO members were to have put their initial offers on liberalization on the table. And in the key area of agriculture, consensus on the modalities of the conduct of negotiations on market access and the elimination of subsidies was to have been established.

News out of Geneva is that all four of these key deadlines have been missed, in spite of an intense series of meetings aimed at securing agreement.

The missed deadlines show how fragile official commitments on trade negotiations can be, when made with the political aim of announcing consensus from a Ministerial Meeting (Doha).

In S&DT, the developed countries have shown little inclination to go beyond currently existing provisions to give developing countries extended periods of application and special provisions for the LLDCs (least developed, or poorest, countries).

S&DT flies counter to the principle of the “level playing field”, on which the WTO is based. Developing countries argue that the WTO provisions in this area are vague and unenforceable-a position that appears to be borne out by experience.

The Doha declaration on TRIPS and Public Health left undefined the rights of developing countries that lack manufacturing capabilities to import generic medicines to meet public health emergencies, such as HIV/AIDS. The subsequent negotiations to give effect to this need collided with the powerful lobby of multinational firms in the pharmaceutical industry. That deadline too, has been missed.

The agriculture issue is one in which there are deep divisions between the US, the EU and Japan. But developing countries such as Brazil and Argentina have a big stake in the outcome, for they need access to developed country markets.

On services, so far only 14 countries have made their initial offers, with only two-the US and Canada-making them public.

Hence, a successful outcome in Cancun will require a tremendous effort to address the outstanding issues in the coming months.


1) Professor Norman Girvan is Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States. The views expressed are not necessarily the official views of the ACS.

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April 28, 2003

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