As Multilateralism Comes Into Question, WTO Trade Ministers Extend Deadlines

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With the negotiations of the Doha Development Agenda formally recognised to be at a standstill, not much was expected from the World Trade Organization’s Eighth Ministerial Conference. There were no surprises at the meeting close as conference Chairman Olusegun Olutoyin Aganga gavelled through the seven matters that were set before the trade ministers.

Official documents from the WTO Eighth Ministerial Conference held 15-17 December are available here.

Mostly the decisions at the end approved extensions on deadlines, including those related to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Many trade officials called the two decisions directly related to TRIPS – the transition period for least-developed countries and a moratorium on non-violation complaints – “procedural” more than substantive. One official said that it was symptomatic of the current crisis in multilateralism.

“There are discussions here [at the WTO ministerial conference] about plurilateralism in some forms, in some ways. But in IP, we already saw a trend, also with ACTA [the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement]. IP might be symptomatic of a broader trend in the sense that a plurilateral avenue is chosen when the multilateral route seems to lead to a dead end. Maybe the symptoms have shown earlier in IP than in other areas.”

A Political Statement

In fact, the decision related to the transition period for LDCs was more of a “political statement” than a bona fide way forward. Ultimately, upon recommendation from the TRIPS Council, trade ministers invited the TRIPS Council to consider extending the period for LDCs to meet their obligations under TRIPS. A political process which a European Union official called “ironic” and said that it left some members of the council “scratching our heads” at the circular logic of recommending the Ministerial to instruct the same council to take action. The EU official considered that its placement on the agenda was more of “a show of goodwill” than a decision with any real impact.

Minister Muhammed Faruk Khan of Bangladesh did not agree. He said that trade ministers have now provided the TRIPS Council important “political direction.” His country submitted the request for the extension to the Ministerial Conference on behalf of the LDC group. The length of the extension period has not yet been specified but Khan suggested 7-10 years. The current extension runs out in 2013.

During this extension period, the council tasked LDCs to provide an assessment of their technical and financial needs in meeting TRIPS obligations. Bangladesh is one of the six countries of the 31 LDCs to have done so. Khan called the process both expensive and complicated: “We have been through it and it is a very difficult process. Not all countries have the capacity to do it. And they need support to conduct these assessments.”

More Extensions

Regarding the decision related to “TRIPS non-violation and situation complaints,” the ministerial approved an extension on the moratorium until the next ministerial in 2013. In the meantime, WTO members are instructed “not to initiate such complaints under the TRIPS Agreement.” According to the WTO website, the question is whether or not countries could bring cases against each other under TRIPS if one feels that another government has deprived it of an expected benefit, even if no WTO agreement has been violated.

The United States and Switzerland are the only members to argue that there is a place for such complaints under TRIPS. Many countries argue that they have not made a proper case to explain the modalities of use. One delegate from a developing country said, “We are not saying that we are necessarily against it in principle, but we haven’t seen any theoretical or practical examples of how it would be defined or used.”

Another extension granted was in regard to electronic commerce. The ministerial decided to “maintain the current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until our next session.” Under the work programme on electronic commerce, the General Council has been instructed to continue the study of and pursue the possibility of a mechanism related to e-commerce and development. In the meantime, time reviews should be held on progress made and potential recommendations before the next ministerial in 2013.

Other decisions included a recommendation to further streamline the accession process for LDCs, continuation of the work programme on small economies, a services waiver for LDCs allowing for preferential treatment to services of poorest countries the next 15 years, and approval of the Fourth Appraisal of the Trade Policy Review Mechanism.

Along with the Government Procurement Agreement, the accessions of four countries including Russia (IPW, WTO/TRIPS, 16 December 2011) were hailed as this ministerial’s most notable achievements.

Rachel Marusak Hermann may be reached at info@ip-watch.org.

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