World Trade    WT/MIN(96)/ST/83

    11 December 1996




Singapore, 9-13 December 1996


Statement by The Honourable Mervyn Assam

Minister of Trade and Industry

    Mr. Chairman, first of all I should like, through you, to thank the Government of Singapore for the warmth of its hospitality and for having made such excellent arrangements to host this important Conference. This First Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization is indeed important because it marks the second anniversary of our commitment to this rule-based multilateral trading system and gives us this opportunity for review and reflection and the possibility to make refinements to the system within the confines of those undertakings which we gave almost two years ago.

    It was in that spirit that Trinidad and Tobago approached this event. My Government has bought into the system by opening up its economy to the forces of competition in the full expectation that we shall reap the reward of sustained economic growth through enhanced access to the global market place. We see the multilateral trading system not as an antiquated institution trying to keep pace with a modern changing world but as a young, vibrant experiment in need of constant nurturing to ensure its continued relevance and viability.

    I have listened with great interest to the numerous statements made by my colleagues and have found that they say essentially two things: first, that the WTO is important and has achieved much during its first two years, and second; and here there is a difference of views, some saying that the Organization should go further, faster and deeper into the process of liberalization; others saying that the process is already too fast and should be slowed. All agree on one salient fact and it is that the WTO can do no more than provide an opportunity; an opportunity to fish in a larger pond, to participate in a global rule-based system which strives to bring greater transparency to trading systems worldwide; an opportunity to challenge even the Goliaths of international trade, by way of dispute settlement mechanisms, when they appear to fail to live up to the letter of the law formulated in Marrakesh, two short years ago.

    Countries which are able to take advantage of these opportunities wish, naturally, to accelerate the process of liberalization while others which have had to apply severe structural adjustment measures in the context of serious social dislocation merely to exploit the opportunities currently available, have opted for a slower path.

    Trinidad and Tobago finds itself somewhere in the middle of this debate. Thus, on the detail of work which is still before us, my country can go along with any reasonable consensus that is reached on these difficult matters. The one factor on which we can afford no flexibility is on the matter of consensus itself. There can be no agreement if all of us who share in this experiment do not feel confident to move forward at a faster pace; for it is my clear understanding that those among us who wish to slow the pace - or steady the ship, depending on your point of view, Mr. Chairman, - do so, not because of a lack of faith in the magic of the global market place; nor is it because they seek to deprive others from enhanced opportunities. They seek a slower pace mainly because of the risk of losing the delicate balance which was struck in Marrakesh after many years of negotiations - a balance which derived from having opportunities for trade-offs over the broad spectrum of sectors covered in the 27,000 pages of Agreements that will soon only be two years old.

    Today, the situation is different. The sectors identified for further, faster liberalization do not provide a "balance" of opportunities, across the board, for this broad spectrum of countries which constitute the membership of WTO. In fact there is clear imbalance deriving from a number of factors not the least of which, is the imbalance in our stages of development.

    Information technology, important as it is, has had much attention and will likely be the subject of a plurilateral agreement here in Singapore. We wish it well. But while it is no doubt very important to put a phone in every village, many of us represented here today have far greater responsibilities to our villages. We must put a school, put a road, put a health office, sometimes start a cooperative and put a sewing machine, put a notice advising of the use of pesticides so as not to jeopardize market access for exportable goods. And given the fact that we, governments, with the help of our local private sector and our gains from trade must, increasingly, do it all ourselves, there remains that obvious disparity in the importance which we attach to a village phone - which we do not manufacture and in which we do not have an export interest - and a plethora of competing demands.

    It will be useful to see whether the success which will attend discussions on information technology will be duplicated in sectors which are of importance to the export trade of developing countries: textiles and clothing, agriculture (including the special interests of net food-importing countries), to name a few; and whether in the further consideration of services under the built-in agenda as much consideration will be given to the trade in all factors of production, including the movement of natural persons - labour, as that which has been devoted to investment and other "new issues".

    I am fully aware that some might argue that the WTO provides more than just an opportunity. There is, after all, a technical assistance programme and special provisions for the least developed countries. We welcome these, but the budgets for these activities are small; minuscule in terms of their own stated aims; and such technical assistance that is provided seeks more so to assist developing countries in meeting our weighty obligations under the terms of those 27,000 pages of Agreement, than to provide us with the means to exercise our rights or to exploit those opportunities.

    I had hoped that Ministers here would have explored more fully the road ahead under the crowded built-in agenda of the Organization and would have given to our representatives clear guidelines, within the enormous ambit of their remit, on priorities for the coming biennium. However, we have been constrained by time and the tide of interest to the contrary to limit our focus, so far, to consider the so-called "new issues" which some feel we should add to the 27,000 hardly digested pages of Agreement.

    Our position on the substance of these matters should not be misunderstood. Trinidad and Tobago has greatly liberalized its financial services sector, has concluded a number of bilateral agreements, has welcomed foreign direct investment, and would further embrace any opportunity to attract the right kind of foreign direct investment to our shores. A multilateral agreement on investment in a rule-based setting, however, is a different matter; one that requires study. It was for that reason that Ministers of Trade - we - went to Midrand in South Africa and agreed that UNCTAD should first conduct such a study. We, like others, hope that the impasse which has been created in the UNCTAD over this issue will soon be resolved.

    On core labour standards, Trinidad and Tobago understands the sensitivities involved on both sides of the debate. It is because of those very sensitivities that the subject of labour must be discussed in a forum which is not competent to deal with the issue. The International Labour Organization with its tripartite structure remains the proper organization for employers, workers and governments to meet on common ground. Involvement of this intergovernmental organization with its limited mandate and membership, restricted of necessity to governments, is less than useful.

    However frustrating it might be to countries which do not get their way in this, the short term of the life of this Organization, it is clear that the struggle for common ground in the search for consensus is the only way to move the work of the Organization forward. Much greater effort must therefore be devoted to addressing matters of real concern to developing countries in the built-in agenda of the Marrakesh Agreements before there can be any meaningful deepening or widening of the scope of the current 27,000 pages.