Asymmetries mark WTO's Bali Accord
By Ravi Kanth Devarakonda
GENEVA - As industrialized countries celebrate the World Trade Organization’s Bali Accord, the developing and the least-developed countries are forced to carry their battle to another day after securing only half-baked results and grandiose promises, said several trade ministers.
"While the agreements reached at Bali are important, it is important to ensure balance in the agreements," said Rob Davies, South Africa’s trade minister. "We are of the view that there is structural imbalance in which the least-developed countries secured only best endeavor solutions while there is a binding agreement on trade facilitation," Davies told IPS.
"The developing and least-developing countries secured only
promises and best-endeavor outcomes while agreeing to a comprehensive trade facilitation agreement," said Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed.
In contrast, the United States, the European Union, and other industrialized countries praised the December 3-7 Bali Ministerial Conference for delivering the trade facilitation agreement.
"For the first time in its almost 20-year history, the WTO reached a fully multilateral agreement," said US Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman. "WTO members have demonstrated that we can come together as one to set new rules that create economic opportunity and prosperity for our nations and our peoples."
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said the breakthrough at Bali in wrapping up the agreement on trade facilitation, and some deliverables in agriculture, were truly significant for the trade body.
"They take the WTO from the darkness of the multilateral era to [shine] light on multilateral action," commissioner Gucht told reporters. The EU commissioner, however, admitted that there was a lack of balance in the overall Bali agreement.
For over 15 years, the industrialized countries and some advanced developing countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Chile and Mexico have pushed hard for rapid liberalization of customs procedures as part of the trade facilitation agreement so as to enable their exports to rapidly penetrate the developing and least developed countries without many hassles.
Proponents say the TF accord is a "good governance agreement" for customs procedures that industrialized countries want the developing and the poorest countries to implement in the coming days and years on a binding basis - failing which the latter can be hauled up at the WTO’s dispute settlement body.
In return, the developing countries managed to secure only best-endeavor agreements on some issues of their concern in agriculture, such as an interim mechanism for public stockholding for food security, transparency-related improvements in what are called tariff rate quota administration provisions, and most trade-distorting farm export subsidies and export credits.
The poorest countries as part of the "development" dossier secured another set of best-endeavor improvement concerning preferential rules of origin for exporting to industrialized countries, preferential treatment to services and services suppliers of least developed countries, duty-free and quota-free market access for least-developed countries, and final monitoring mechanism for special and differential treatment flexibilities.
Ironically, the Bali accord has weakened the language on issues raised by the developing and the poorest countries as compared to what was agreed in the WTO Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration in 2005.
The Kenyan foreign minister - who was the chair of the WTO General Council at the Hong Kong meeting - spoke about this puzzling change.
"What is the guarantee that the industrialized countries will implement the promises now made in the Bali agreement, particularly the provision of financial and technical assistance to implement the trade facilitation commitments, when they did not implement the commitments that were made eight years ago?" she remarked to IPS.
The Bali package included 10 agreements. They comprise a binding agreement on trade facilitation and four descriptive items in agriculture such as general services, public stockholding for food security purposes, understanding the tariff rate quota administration provisions of agriculture products, and export competition.
In the development dossier, the Bali package offered non-binding best endeavor outcomes on preferential rules of origin for least developed countries, organization for the waiver concerning preferential treatment to services, duty-free and quota-free market access, and a monitoring mechanism on special and differential treatment.
"We have only partly accommodated the concerns of the poorest countries," said Davies. "The priority out to be on development and implementation issues in the coming days," the South African minister emphasized.
India steadfastly pushed hard for strong language to ensure that the public stockholding program for food security continued without interruption until a permanent solution was arrived at.
Despite opposition from some major industrialized countries, including the United States, and also opposition from some developing countries, India managed to secure an interim mechanism that would last for four years during which there is a commitment to find a permanent solution. If there is no outcome within four years, the interim solution will be extended until members agree to a permanent outcome.
However, there are many notification and safeguard conditions that India and other developing countries will have to implement in order to avail themselves of the interim mechanism for food security. The US said these conditions are essential to ensure that public stockholding programs for food security in one country do not cause food insecurity in other countries.
The post-Bali work program has admitted that there are glaring asymmetrical outcomes in the "Bali Package".
"Issues in the Bali Package where legally binding outcomes could not be achieved will be prioritized... Work on issues in the package that have not been fully addressed at this Conference will resume in the relevant Committees or Negotiating Groups of the WTO," according to the Bali Ministerial Declaration.
In short, the developing and least-developed countries will have to carry on their fight as there are no "legally binding outcomes" on any of their issues. That is the message from the Bali Ministerial meeting.
Also, the Bali meeting shall be remembered for the manner in which the developing and the poorest countries remained divided thanks to a grand strategy adopted by the northern countries.
"Unless the developing world remains united it is highly unlikely that they will make progress on their issues in the next year, and this is even more true in a period when the North is going to push hard its new trade agenda," said a trade minister who preferred not to be identified.