South Asian countries should bridge their differences on WTO issues: CUTS

December 14, 2006
In July 2006, the Director-General of WTO after consulting the WTO members suspended the Doha Round of negotiations as an interim measure to allow for a period of “time-out”. Negotiations crammed upon agriculture that represents merely eight percent of total world trade, as food production always remained a very sensitive sector for both rich and poor countries. Furthermore, the current Doha Round being development round and since more than 70 percent of the world poor live in rural areas, there is no way the Doha Development Agenda can continue if the existing trade in agriculture is biased in favour of rich countries and issues relating to agricultural subsidies in the rich world are not addressed for the benefits of poor countries’ farmers. Thus concluding this Round is understandably difficult.

In such a situation, it is pertinent for the South Asian countries to identify their commonalities and differences regarding the negotiations so as to take common positions in future. Until now, negotiating positions of various countries of the region are more common on certain issues than conflicting. For example, on agriculture, positions are more or less common with regard to “special products” and “special safeguard mechanisms” as these economies are undergoing similar structural changes. Given this it is possible for South Asian countries to agree on other areas like for securing better market access for their agricultural products, for minimising distortions in the form of subsidies in rich-country markets, and for articulating common needs under the Special and Differential Treatment provisions.

Besides agriculture, given the abundant labour force and a strong comparative advantage in exports of such force to other countries, South Asia can also have a common position on Temporary Movement of Natural Persons under Mode 4 of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). A common position on issues of technology transfer, technical assistance and implementation aspects could also be accomplished. However, on issues such as intellectual property right (IPRs), India’s position is somewhat different from other countries of the region, in particular the LDCs. Thus, there do exist different positions on a few negotiating issues that need to be bonded.

In order to advocate for taking forward common positions on WTO issues by South Asian countries, CUTS Centre for International Trade Economics & Environment (CUTS CITEE) is currently implementing the phase-II of a project entitled, “WTO Doha Round & South Asia: Linking Civil Society with Trade Negotiations”. One of the objectives of this project is to generate negotiating inputs and assist the South Asian trade negotiators and policy makers while taking into account the positions of civil society (including NGOs, business bodies, trade unions, women groups, particularly those working on gender and trade linkages) for the successful completion of the Doha Round. The project is implemented in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It is supported by Oxfam Novib, The Netherlands.

After a lull since July this year, WTO members are considering “soft resumption” of the Doha Round of negotiations. Talks among trade negotiators have resumed in Geneva but it’s anybody guess on when and how they will be taken to the political level.