WTO New Delhi Ministerial Meeting

A strident pitch for reinforcing the Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) mechanism enabling the mostly poor and developing nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was made at the New Delhi Ministerial meeting. It called upon the developing countries to make use of the concessions and flexibilities of the various global trade agreements and beefing up the multilateral trading system under the WTO auspices. The just-ended New Delhi conclave for breaking the logjam in the ongoing WTO trade negotiations while preserving the pristine nature of multilateralism was held by senior officials from 22 countries to deliberate on recent developments at the WTO and to explore ways for working with all members to strengthen the global trading system. The stance of the Trump Administration in opposing the due appointment of members to the Appellate Body (AB) of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement so that no unfavorable verdict in trade dispute is rendered to the US in its ongoing trade war with a large number of countries was duly criticized by the delegates.  It was underscored by all WTO members to engage constructively without delay in filling the vacancies in the AB, while persisting with discussions on other issues pertaining to the functioning of the dispute settlement mechanism.

India’s Commerce Minister set the tone in the meeting where he pertinently noted that the meeting assumed significance in the backdrop of little respite from trade tensions among trading majors with protectionist tendencies rearing their ugly heads elsewhere that threaten to torpedo the gains of free and fair trade that fuelled the post-war prosperity of the world for decades. The Indian Minister also made a strong plea at the inaugural session of the ministerial that the 7.3 billion people living in the developing world could not and should not be deprived of the benefits of growth as the WTO is a body which addresses these concerns of development and growth of countries through trade and not aid.

Echoing similar concerns, the Director General, WTO, Roberto Azevedo outlined the ongoing discussions on WTO reforms and told the gathering that “this is your organization….make your voices heard in this debate”. He also gave an overview of members’ discussion in all three pillars of the WTO’s work—monitoring, dispute settlements and negotiations.

Even as the S&DT accords developing and least developing countries more time for implementing multilateral trading rules, the WTO Chief Azevedo said that the S&DT mechanism must be innovative to tackle the impasse.

He said the best way forward is to have a trade-facilitation agreement-type model where countries may set their own benchmarks. But, as many as 17 members including India and China stated that S&DT provisions are the rights of developing members that must be preserved and strengthened in both current and future WTO agreements, with priority attention to outstanding Least Developed Countries (LDC) issues. Five members—Kazakhstan, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala—did not sign the joint statement. India’s Permanent Representative to the WTO JS Deepak, however, maintained that “India’s position on S&DT is very clear. It is an essential part of the WTO mechanism. India does not believe in further classification of countries”. In a way, with 17 members of the 22 assembled having reiterated and called for strengthening ‘Special and Differential’ provisions at WTO, the New Delhi ministerial scored a tactical gain.

While the joint ministerial declaration did not mention the ongoing pluri-lateral deals on electronic-commerce at the WTO among 75 members without India’s participation; it mentioned the need to preserve the multilateral process. It aptly observed that “multilateral avenues, based on consensus, remain the most effective means to achieve inclusive development-oriented outcome which should be conducive to strengthening the multilateral trading system and be consistent with WTO rules” The New  Delhi ministerial has undoubtedly injected dynamism and indicated the way forward for the global institution to make its contribution to international trade.

Script: G. Srinivasan, Senior Journalist