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Central to WTO future work programme

No area of WTO work has received more attention or generated more controversy in the last two years than the issue of implementation.

For many developing countries the issue of the implementation of Uruguay Round agreements has been the focal point of WTO activity since before the 2nd Ministerial Conference held in Geneva in May 1998.

The issue involves all WTO agreements and all WTO member governments. While it is difficult to forecast the outcome of any discussions on the issue ahead of the conference, it is certain that the question of implementation will not only be at the center of ministerial activity during the meeting but that any broader work programme undertaken by the WTO will be contingent on resolving the issue in a satisfactory manner.

“Member governments have worked very hard on the issue of implementation and there is a growing recognition that implementation is central to our work. Developing countries have won,” said Director-General Mike Moore. “They have succeeded in focusing the attention of all governments on the difficulties they have faced in implementing our agreements. It is also clear that further efforts to rebalance past agreements in any significant way will require new negotiations. Implementation can thus become another key building block in our future work. Many small countries have expressed concern about a more complex set of negotiations and their capacity to cope unless the WTO increases its capacity to provide technical assistance. They worry that unless such assistance is provided in advance of any conclusion to the round, there will be more implementation problems in the future. Clearly, no broad-based work programme can take place without a resolution to these difficult issues.”

Different WTO member governments see the issue in different ways. For many developing countries, and particularly for the least-developed countries, capacity constraints have been a major obstacle to the full implementation of Uruguay Round agreements. A lack of financial, human and institutional resources has prevented governments in these countries from putting the often highly complex Uruguay Round agreements into effect.

In addition to these capacity constraints, some developing countries take the view that the Uruguay Round agreements have not delivered the economic benefits that had been expected. Officials from these countries believe that agreements on textiles, subsidies, agriculture, intellectual property protection, anti-dumping, sanitary and phytosanitary measures and trade-related investment measures do not adequately reflect the interests and concerns of developing countries and need to be “re-balanced.”

Some developed countries had initially been reluctant to engage in the implementation debate and officials from these countries took the line that addressing the concerns spelled out in recent years by developing countries amounts to amending or renegotiating the Uruguay Round agreements. While some governments have said they are prepared to entertain such a prospect, they have made it clear that those proposals requiring amending agreements can only be addressed inside a wider set of negotiations encompassing areas of interest to their citizens.

The issue has been at the forefront of the preparations for the Doha Ministerial Conference. The debate was galvanized when a group of seven countries, chaired by Uruguay, put forward a compromise paper incorporating elements of the Seattle proposals and offered a structure for dealing with this issue. Under the terms of this paper, some issues would be decided immediately, others would be decided at Doha while the remainder would be settled in negotiations after Doha.

The paper did not go as far as many developing countries would have liked and went further than some developed countries thought was politically possible. But this text succeeded in shifting the debate and has been an important element in subsequent attempts to bridge the gap by the Chairman of the General Council, Stuart Harbinson (Hong Kong, China) together with Director-General Mike Moore.

Mr. Harbinson and the Director-General issued a paper on 28 September 2001 which listed two annexes, one for immediate decision and the other for decision at Doha. The text formed the basis for negotiations up to the Ministerial Conference.


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Background timeline on the implementation debate

The current implementation debate arises from a decision by Ministers at the Geneva Ministerial Conference in 1998. At that Conference, Ministers agreed that implementation must be an important part of future work at the WTO. Paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Ministerial Declaration spell out their commitments:

  1. Full and faithful implementation of the WTO Agreement and Ministerial Decisions is imperative for the credibility of the multilateral trading system and indispensable for maintaining the momentum for expanding global trade, fostering job creation and raising standards of living in all parts of the world. When we meet at the Third Session we shall further pursue our evaluation of the implementation of individual agreements and the realization of their objectives. Such evaluation would cover, inter alia, the problems encountered in implementation and the consequent impact on the trade and development prospects of Members. We reaffirm our commitment to respect the existing schedules for reviews, negotiations and other work to which we have already agreed.

  2. World Trade Organization states that the WTO shall provide the forum for negotiations among its Members concerning their multilateral trade relations in matters dealt with under the agreements in the Annexes to the Agreement, and that it may also provide a forum for further negotiations among its Members concerning their multilateral trade relations, and a framework for the implementation of the results of such negotiations, as may be decided by the Ministerial Conference. …. we decide that a process will be established under the direction of the General Council to ensure full and faithful implementation of existing agreements, and to prepare for the Third Session of the Ministerial Conference. This process shall enable the General Council to submit recommendations regarding the WTO’s work programme, including further liberalization sufficiently broad-based to respond to the range of interests and concerns of all Members, within the WTO framework, that will enable us to take decisions at the Third Session of the Ministerial Conference. In this regard, the General Council will meet in special session in September 1998 and periodically thereafter to ensure full and timely completion of its work, fully respecting the principle of decision-making by consensus. The General Council’s work programme shall encompass the following:

  1. recommendations concerning:

  1. the issues, including those brought forward by Members, relating to implementation of existing agreements and decisions;

  2. the negotiations already mandated at Marrakesh, to ensure that such negotiations begin on schedule;

  3. future work already provided for under other existing agreements and decisions taken at Marrakesh;

  1. recommendations concerning other possible future work on the basis of the work programme initiated at Singapore;

  2. recommendations on the follow-up to the High-Level Meeting on Least-Developed Countries;

  3. recommendations arising from consideration of other matters proposed and agreed to by Members concerning their multilateral trade relations.

Prior to the Seattle Ministerial Conference in December 1999, a group of developing countries presented the General Council with a list of some 150 elements for consideration on the implementation agenda. The eight pages of elements were broken down into two categories 1) issues to be decided before that Ministerial Conference and 2) issues to be agreed within one year of the Seattle conference. The issue of implementation was perhaps the single most discussed issue in the run-up to Seattle, but as with all other elements of the preparation for that meeting, there was no consensus on an agreement.

Following the Seattle Conference, member governments agreed on a new approach to working on the issue. On 8 May 2000, the General Council established a framework for discussion and negotiation of the implementation issue which was known as the Implementation Review Mechanism (IRM). The IRM consists of special sessions of the General Council meeting exclusively on this question. Special Sessions of the IRM were held on 22 June–3 July and 18 October 2000.

On 15 December 2000 the General Council adopted a decision on seven implementation measures. All member governments accepted that these measures, which were mainly related to points of clarification regarding subsidies, were modest in nature. Nonetheless, the decisions were an indication that the process itself was well established and that implementation issues were at the core of WTO work

Additional Special Sessions of the General Council devoted to implementation took place on 27 April 2001 and 3 October 2001. The session on 3 October was set to reach agreement on a roster of issues laid out by Chairman Harbinson. But informal heads of delegation meetings revealed that members could not agree on that roster so the formal Special Session was suspended after only a few minutes. At time of printing, it was uncertain as to whether some implementation issues could be agreed prior to the Doha Ministerial Meeting.