Singapore Conference and the World Trade Organization

By Johnstone, Robert | Behind the Headlines, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
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Singapore Conference and the World Trade Organization

Johnstone, Robert, Behind the Headlines

Sceptics said it could't be done. But last December, most of the world's trade ministers met to review the first two years of progress under the new World Trade Organization. The author finds the results encouraging.

The Uruguay Round agreements at the end of 1993 provided for a ministerial conference of all World Trade Organization (WTO) members to be held at least once every two years. This commitment was an accomplishment, signalling recognition of the importance of what had been achieved in the Uruguay Round and the need to ensure that the new WTO could count on the regular involvement of its political masters.

But what members would do when they arrived in Singapore in December 1996 for their first meeting remained open. Preparations got under way almost at once, in that members began to indicate those topics they wished to see on the agenda, and, every bit as important, those they wanted to avoid. The debate was between those who wanted to limit it to implementation of the Uruguay Round results and those who wanted to go beyond and commit members to negotiations in new areas.

There was no shortage of business for discussion and decision in the narrower agenda, which included steps still to be taken by many members to implement the Uruguay Round. It also included the unfinished business of negotiations to improve market access in financial services, maritime transport, basic telecommunications, and `the movement of natural persons' (that is, the freedom of individuals to enter other countries temporarily to provide services in support of their companies). Beyond this was the Uruguay agreement to review progress on work under way in the WTO on a long list of traditional topics of a more or less technical nature - for instance import licensing, customs valuation, pre-shipment inspection, rules of origin - as well as some more controversial items such as intellectual property rights. Controversial or not, all of them were on the so-called built-in agenda that came out of the Uruguay Round, and none was ready for ministerial decision.

By and large, developing countries argued that Singapore should concentrate on the narrower agenda - let's complete what we have agreed to do - while one or more of the industrial countries wanted to bring forward new topics for discussion and eventual negotiation - trade and labour markets, trade and the environment, trade and competition policy, and `transparency in procurement,' which is WTO-speak for bribery and corruption. In general, developing countries argued that the results of the Uruguay Round and its unfinished business were quite enough for them to digest, that some of the wealthier industrial countries were not above criticism for their own implementation of the Uruguay Round obligations, and that the so-called new issues struck them as very much tilted to the benefit of these same countries.

While views did not divide neatly between industrial and developing countries, there was a clear North/South, richer/poorer cast to the negotiations leading up to Singapore and at the meeting itself.

After the better part of two years of wrangling about what the meeting might address, 129 trade ministers, accompanied by hordes of their officials and hundreds of journalists, met in Singapore from 9 to 13 December 1996. The result, not surprisingly, was compromise in the language of the ministerial declaration that left every-one one more or less satisfied, or perhaps more accurately spread dissatisfaction with a reasonably even hand.

The declaration was, as is usual on such occasions, the subject of intense negotiation. It is replete with high-sounding language and sparing of specific commitments.

Ministers `renewed' their commitment to what had been agreed at the end of the Uruguay Round, giving `high priority to full and effective implementation of the WTO Agreement in a manner consistent with the goal of trade liberalization.

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