WTO news: what’s been happening in the WTO


General Council sets dates for negotiations

Services Council and Agriculture Committee to meet in special sessions

The WTO General Council decided on 7–8 February on the organization of mandated negotiations in agriculture and services, scheduling first meetings of special sessions of the Services Council and Agriculture Committee in February and March (for details and background, see press release 167.

It also heard a report from Director-General Mike Moore on consultations he has been holding since the New Year on many of the issues which remain outstanding after the inconclusive Third WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle late last year.

It also heard a report from Director-General Mike Moore on consultations he has been holding since the New Year on many of the issues which remain outstanding after the inconclusive Third WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle late last year.

The topics he covered included: a package of measures for least-developed countries, expanding technical cooperation, proposals to extend transition periods for developing countries to implement various provisions of WTO agreements, other implementation issues, and improving WTO decision-making so members can participate more fully, in a more transparent system that preserves the rule that decisions have to be made by consensus (see press release 166). The General Council agreed that he and the council’s chairperson should continue consultations with members.

Right at the end of the meeting, the council elected a new chairperson for the year and took note of the chairpeople for other key councils and committees (see press release 165).

The decisions and the discussions were the result of several weeks of consultations in a variety of groupings, culminating in two informal meetings of the full General Council (i.e. the full WTO membership) on 2 and 4 February.

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The debate

In the 7–8 February formal meeting, members emphasized the need to show that the WTO is clearly in business despite the failure to reach agreement in Seattle. Many stressed a confidence-building approach in which they acknowledged the importance fellow-members attach to various issues and agreed to try to act swiftly on these. They also agreed that mandated reviews of the implementation of current WTO agreements should look at trade and developmental aspects and their impact on developing countries. A number of developed countries, including the United States, supported developing countries on this.

There was also concensus on the need to move ahead quickly on various proposals for least-developed countries, including scrapping import duties on the bulk of their exports and increasing technical assistance so they are better equipped to participate in international trade and the WTO (“capacity-building”).

The debate on implementation included the question of whether and how to extend 1 January 2000 deadlines for developing countries to implement a number of provisions, including provisions on intellectual property, trade-related investment measures, customs valuation and subsidies. Some countries argued for “multilateral” solutions which would apply to all countries concerned. Others argued for a case-by-case approach which would preserve the multilateral agreements that were the outcome of negotiations. Some proposed blending the two approaches: multilateral principles for making case-by-case decisions.

Members broadly supported developing countries’ calls for these and other implementation issues to be given priority. The subject will be on the agenda of the next General Council meeting.

On internal transparency and participation, many delegations argued that the WTO’s decision-making system is not seriously flawed, but may require some modification. Several rejected the view that the decision-making process was the reason for the failure of the Seattle Ministerial Conference. But some delegations did have serious complaints about the system’s transparency and what they said was certain countries’ exclusion from small-group consultations. However, the principle of decision by consensus was not called into question and several members said it is “non-negotiable”.

At the close Norwegian Ambassador Kňre Bryn was elected the new chairman for 2000. The next regular meeting of the General Council is on 3 May 2000, although meetings can be called earlier if the need arises.

WTO General Council, 7 February
Agenda Items 3 and 5, Chairman's concluding remarks

“I wish to thank all delegations for their inputs into what I am sure we would all agree has been a very positive and constructive discussion. It is clear that we all agree too on the need to build confidence among ourselves and I think this discussion has been a significant step in that process. Working together on a series of realistic and achievable measures is the way in which we will give substance to our renewed confidence. In this respect I take note – and encouragement – that the issues identified by the Director-General in his report (measures in favour of LDCs; technical co-operation; transition periods and other implementation issues; internal transparency and effective participation of all Members) are widely considered to be priorities for further consultation. I have also noted the high importance Members place on addressing the range of implementation issues in an effective way. I suggest that implementation should be an item on the agenda of the next General Council. In this light, and bearing in mind all the additional points that have been made by delegations, I ask the General Council to take note of the Director-General's statement and the other statements made, and to agree to further consultations by the Chairman of the General Council and the Director-General.”

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See also 

Press release 165: Chairpersons for 2000
Press release 166: WTO Director-General’s report to General Council on consultations after Seattle
Press release 167: WTO services and agriculture negotiations — meetings set for February and March
Outgoing chairperson’s farewell statement: On the D-G selection and Seattle — “One of the most difficult chairmanships in the history of our organisation”
New chairperson’s statement: Priority — to preserve and consolidate the system