The meeting is at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center


The Seattle ‘ministerial’

Officially, it’s the Third WTO Ministerial Conference. The ministerial conference is the organization’s highest-level decision-making body. It meets "at least once every two years", as required by the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization — the WTO’s founding charter.

The Seattle ministerial will be the third since the WTO was created on 1 January 1995.

What’s special about this ministerial?

This ministerial will launch major new negotiations to further liberalize international trade and to review some current trade rules. It will also set in motion a work programme to look at other important issues.

The WTO’s current agreements were the result of the 1986-94 Uruguay Round of negotiations. Although the outcome meant a major reform of world trade rules and a substantial reduction in trade barriers, many participants wanted to see further improvements in the trading system.

In particular, the agreements on services (the General Agreement on Trade in Services, GATS) and on agriculture state that new negotiations will resume by the beginning of 2000. These two subjects are definitely going to be in the new negotiations.

In addition, many WTO members have proposed including other issues in the negotiations.

The preparations kicked off at the Second Ministerial Conference in Geneva, in May 1998. They gathered pace in September 1998 in the General Council. Proposals for items to be negotiated were first tabled in March 1999. In September 1999, the General Council started to put the various ideas together in a draft declaration to be issued in Seattle. In other words, the declaration will include — among other things — the agenda for the negotiations.

By mid-September, more than 150 proposals had been tabled. The list of documents shows they cover tariffs, anti-dumping, subsidies, safeguards, investment measures, trade facilitation, electronic commerce, competition policy, fisheries, transparency in government procurement, technical assistance, capacity-building and other development issues, intellectual property protection, and many other subjects — in addition to agriculture and services.

Many of the proposals are not specifically for the negotiations, but for programmes of work on other important issues. Most of these have emerged as issues of concern for many countries over the last four years when the Uruguay Round results took effect or were implemented.

Which of these subjects (apart from agriculture and services) will be included in the negotiations, and which in the work programme, is something that WTO members have been working out in their discussions in the General Council in Geneva.

There are also proposals for the Seattle meeting to produce a special deal to help least-developed countries gain easier access to richer countries’ markets, and to develop further work on technical assistance to least-developed countries under an integrated framework set up by the WTO and a number of other organizations in 1997.

Seattle will only be the beginning

It’s important to be clear that the Seattle Ministerial Conference will only be the beginning of the negotiations, just as the seven-year Uruguay Round was launched at a ministerial meeting in Punta del Este in 1986 and the six-year Tokyo Round was launched in Tokyo in 1973.

After the launch in Seattle, the actual negotiations and work programmes will take place in Geneva, where the WTO is located. Many countries have suggested a deadline of three years for these new talks. The decision will be made by ministers in Seattle. Ministers will be aware that past experience has shown it is not always easy to complete large, complicated negotiations within the specified time.

Will the launch be the only ‘result’ of the Seattle meeting?

Not necessarily. It’s possible that some agreement will be reached on less difficult proposals. These could still be important for world trade. But it’s also clear that the major issues are going to take several years to negotiate.

At the same time, a number of countries have said they want the Seattle meeting to look carefully at how the Uruguay Round results are being implemented. This is also an area where a wide range of countries have expressed a lot of interest.

Developing countries, for example, want to examine how the agreements on anti-dumping measures, subsidies and textiles and clothing have been implemented. 

WTO ministerial conferences

9-13 December 1996

18 and 20 May 1998

30 November - 3 December 1999