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SAARC against WTO          

It was unanimously resolved that a new round of WTO talks should not be held untill previous trade commitments were met

From Shamim Ahmed Rizvi,
Sep 03 - 09, 2001

Seven South Asian Nations and members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at a meeting in New Delhi last week decided to take a joint stand against World Trade Organisation (WTO) talk in Doha Qatar in coming November. The seven states—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan unanimously resolved that a new round of WTO talks should not be held untill previous trade commitments were met.

A joint statement issued at the close of the meeting said "any move to further issues runs the risk of overloading the agenda and making it unsustainable". The inclusion of any new item for negotiations could be discussed only after a convergence of views amongst the WTO membership", SAARC's stand strengthens India's position that the previous 1986-1994 Uruguay Round of talks left poorer nations with a bad deal as many of the WTO promises remained unfulfilled.

India's Commerce and Industry Minister, Murasoli Maran, told the SAARC meeting that developing nations had been told at the Uruguay round that opening their doors could bring them trade opportunities ranging between $250-450 billion. "But in reality there have been hardly any worthwhile gains for developing nations. He also said that tariffs were unfairly stacked up against primary products like agricultural produce, the mainstay of their exports.

India has been campaigning against a fresh round of trade talks at a ministerial meeting of the WTO in Qatar in November and its stand is seen influencing other developing nations which account for three-fourths of the 142-strong WTO. Both the United States and European Union countries are keen on launching talks.

The SAARC countries noted with disappointment the visible indifference of the advanced countries to addressing the concerns of the developing countries that have remained in jeopardy ever since the Uruguay Round of talks. As little change has been seen in the plight of the developing and least developed nations despite WTO commitments to the contrary, the Commerce Ministers of the SAARC countries warned that any further delay in addressing their accumulated predicament could erode the credibility of the multilateral trading system among the developing and developed countries. Making a pointed reference to the denial of greater market access for exports from the developing and least developed countries, the joint statement asked the developed countries to desist from imposing restrictions on products in which the developing countries have acquired comparative advantage. The joint statement of the SAARC Commerce Ministers, which covered the entire range of the developing countries' concerns in the spheres of trade and development, also called for preventing extraneous issues like environment and child labour from figuring in WTO talks.

It will be noted that the recent efforts for reactivation of Saarc that had virtually gone into a slumber due to India's unfortunate obsessions with ideas of hegemony in the region, seen to have been visibly spurred by a welcome change of heart in New Delhi. This is evident from the fact that the Saarc commerce secretaries recent meeting in Colombo which ended the deadlock over its stalled 11th summit, was instantly followed by the decision to hold the crucial pre-WTO Commerce Ministers conference. Surely, there could certainly be no logic, no argument, more convincing than the compulsion of events, particularly when it comes to the need of mending fences between estranged neighbours. And if any positive proof of this were required in the context of India-Pakistan relation it has been amply provided by the outcome of the hurriedly held Saarc commerce secretaries' strategic meeting, preceding the Commerce Ministers conference, which has certainly ended on an encouraging note. For one thing, it has expressed the common concern of all its seven South Asian member countries over the hectic efforts of the developed countries to expand the WTO's trade agenda. It has now been unambiguously pointed out, that, in the first instance, it would be essential to fulfil the obligations earlier agreed upon before rushing for fresh commitments.

The Saarc insistence on the actuality of considerable imbalance in the WTO agreements and stress upon the need of timely correction, should severe as an unmistakable indication of the disillusionment of the developing countries with the ongoing process of globalisation. It will also be noted that, sensing the grave dangers inherent in the developed nations' approach, the New Delhi moot has deemed it expedient to strengthen the ongoing consultations among the saarc ambassadors to WTO by associating other like-minded countries with it. Moreover, it has spelled out the need of ensuring expeditious agreement on the agenda for the fourth WTO Ministerial Conference, scheduled to be held in Doha (Qatar) in November this year. This move should gain added significance from the report that the Indian Commerce Minister would be participating in the conference of the like-minded group of countries, scheduled to be held in Geneva, next month, at the initiative of Pakistan. Perhaps, reciprocating in the same spirit, Pakistan may participate in a similar meeting in Mexico next week, which is being held at the initiative of India. All this, put together, certainly points to a somewhat healthy change in the Indian perception of the role and responsibilities of Saarc as an effective regional grouping of the South Asian nations.

The United States and the European Union (EU) are trying hard to make Doha talks a success, although the EU has been given indications that she shares the conerns of the developing countries on this issue. In the last week of June the EU commission on world trade invited economic writers including this correspondent from 15 different developing countries to a 3 day seminar in Brussels and took pains to convince them the EU appreciated the concerns of the developing countries about WTO programme of removing trade barrier and having a free global trade. They assured the participants that EU will support the developing countries in the coming WTO talks.

The developing countries are apprehensive of the WTO programme of free global trade by the year 2003 abolishing custom tariff and other restrictions on free movement of goods and services between world countries. The developing and less industrialised countries feel that in such a free trade atmosphere they would not be able to compete with highly industrialised countries who are, besides having better technology and quality of production, also enjoying economies of large scale production. They apprehend that whatever little industrial base they have acquired will be destroyed, if trade restriction are removed in such a short time as demanded by WTO. The developing countries demand this time frame be extended upto 2010 and developed highly industrialised and rich countries should provide material help to the developing nations to improve their competitiveness to ensure that they get their due share in the free international trade.