WTO Meeting in Doha, Qatar, 2001

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, December 22, 2002

The World Trade Organization (WTO) held its 4th Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, from November 9 to 13, 2001.

As with the other ministerial conferences the purpose was to negotiate a new round of trade agreements. As the official WTO ministerial web site home page says (as of 11 November, 2001), "The topmost decision-making body of the WTO is the Ministerial Conference, which has to meet at least every two years. It brings together all members of the WTO, all of which are countries or customs unions. The Ministerial Conference can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements."

However, as with the other ministerial conferences, this one provoked much criticism from developing nations, environmentalists, labor, non-governmental organizations and others, who claimed that the declaration gives northern, industrialized nations too much control over world trade policy and maintains or increases the unequal rules of trade.

Political Backdrop

Perhaps due to the so-called "war on terror" there was less media coverage of this WTO event, but its ramifications and impacts, positive and negative are global and therefore always of utmost importance.

Still reeling from the experiences of Seattle, two years or so earlier, Qatar was the choice location of the meetings, because there are conveniently repressive laws about the right to demonstrate and protest. (Even some US Marines had been deployed to Qatar!) However, protests occured in other cities around the world during the time of the conference.

Building up to the meeting, this round was claimed by some leaders of more wealthier countries as a way to address the current global recessions and further economic turmoil exacerbated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. However, some politicians and business leaders have indirectly (or directly) equated trade with freedom and prosperity, while the terrorists acts of September 11, 2001 are claimed to have been done because such people were against freedom and prosperity. As a result, there has been the implication (directly or indirectly) that criticisms of trade rounds therefore amount to being against freedom for all people and supporting terrorism!

Yet, as the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First for short) reports, "Given the experience of the last six years in the WTO, any economist knows that presenting the launch of a new round as a solution for global recession is a tactic to pressurize countries at this sensitive time. ... Disguised as the fight against terrorism, Robert Zoellick, US Trade Representive, has shamelessly tried to push fast track authority past Congress prior to Doha and has failed thus far. His delegation is expected to use the same tactic with trade ministers at the meeting."

Furthermore, groups against the current forms of globalization have turned the argument around pointing out that "corporate-driven global trade practices create a breeding ground for terrorism" because of the unequal trade that has resulted in poverty and inequality.

Politicians and business leaders who critique developing countries, protestors, critical NGOs etc are perhaps playing the media, or playing political games:

  • From various political and business leaders, especially from the wealthier nations, we hear wonderful statements about enhancing international cooperation, enhancing and increasing trade, having dialog with developing countries and so on. We are constantly told that trade is good, that trade can help alleviate poverty and so on. As a result, they suggest, supporting trade is the way to go.
  • But that is not the point! These are not the disputed issues at hand.
  • That is, such claims and ideals are obvious statements, that in rhetoric most would support. The real concerns from protest groups, developing countries, etc. is not whether there should be trade or not, but what the current form of international trade is and what its impacts are; what the rules of the trade agreements are; who benefits; who doesn't; is the WTO an appropriate body accomplishing these objectives to enhance fair and just global trade, and so on.
  • And either politicians don't understand that, or are intentionally try to make those who are critical appear in a negative light. (Given that most politicians are not stupid, it is hard to imagine that the explanation for this discrepancy is the former!)
  • (This was also a misconception and oversimplification of issues presented during the Seattle protests in 1999. See also this site's section on protests around the world that addresses this in further detail as well. The Mainstream Media and Free Trade section on this site also discusses related aspects.)

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Developing Country reactions to Doha WTO Round

Developing countries were under much pressure and arm twisting to accept a new round of trade negotiations. However, they have for many year had numerous concerns about the undemocratic process, the actual trade issues themselves, and so on.

As reported by AllAfrica Global Media, African ministers and civil society organizations (CSOs) were opposed to the new round. They criticized the WTO processes as being non-democratic and opaque, rather than transparent.

As well as most of Africa, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), other least developed countries, and in particular India, were very vocal at resisting things like a new round of talks, of discussing so-called "new issues" and on the non-democratic nature of the whole process. The issues at hand are seen to worsen the situation of the poorer countries, rather than improve. The process in which the draft Declaration was written also added to the problems, as well as other processes within the WTO.

Developing country delegates were concerned at the undue pressure from developed countries, being put on them to accept the new round. The British paper, The Guardian reports that

Developing countries complained that they were being pushed into signing up to a deal by the threat that failure would destroy the WTO and damage the world economy.

"We are made to feel that we are holding up the rescue of the global economy if we don't agree to a new round here," said Dr Richard Bernal, a Jamaican delegate.

Some delegates have told development lobby groups that the European Union and the US are threatening the most recalcitrant developing countries with losing access to western markets under established trade deals if they continue to oppose new talks.

Charlotte Denny, Developed world accused of bully-boy tactics at WTO, The Guardian, November 12, 2001

(That there would be "arm twisting", "bully-boy tactics" and pressure from more powerful nations to sign on to the WTO declaration should unfortunately be of no surprise. It is always a tactic used at all sorts of negotiations, but usually called "diplomacy"! In some respects, it is to be expected, as delegates from powerful nations are representing their own country's interests and doing what they have the ability to do, to get their ways. The ramification of such things though of course, is that the poor risk being worse off as a result and despite rhetoric that is otherwise, such things are not usually the concerns of such delegates -- their primary concern and job is their own nation and if the poor lose out, so be it.)

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Processes at the WTO Meetings were Unfair for Developing Countries

In looking at the build up to the meeting, and the problems of the Draft Declaration to agree to, Martin Khor, director of the Third World Network has been highly critical of the whole process as well as the draft text, commenting that,

The conclusion that any objective observer would draw is that the pre-Doha process has been cleverly (or deviously) manipulated so as to set up the Doha Ministerial in a manner that enables the major developed countries to push through their unpopular agenda of new negotiations in a New Round, against the wishes of a large number of other Members.

Martin Khor, Developing countries face uphill task in Doha, Third World Network, November 10, 2001

Both in the process that created it, and in the content of it, the draft Declaration was described as "unbalanced" and "biased" because it ignores the views of most developing countries.

For example, much of the draft text and introduction of new issues was done at a late stage that did not allow developing countries adequate time to study and comment. As a result, nations like India and others understandably suggested that many of these issues should not be part of the meeting.

Another concern, as with Seattle, was the number of delegates and representatives from various countries. That is, as the World Development Movement (WDM) point out, the number of delegates representing the EU and US for example, far outweighed that from developing countries. At first thought, it might not seem to be an issue at all -- the EU and US are, after all, just ensuring their own objectives are met, and showing their dedication to this issue. However, the problem is that, as with Seattle, when so many meetings may go on in parallel, with more delegates and experts that the EU and US can afford to bring, they are more able to represent their interests. Barry Coates, WDM's Director, said, "The vast disparity in the sizes of delegations is yet another indicator that the odds are stacked against the poorest nations in the negotiations at the Doha Ministerial. Combined with the deeply unfair negotiations process, the developing world has little chance to achieve fairer trade rules." (as quoted from the previous link.)

The much criticized "Green Room" process, was feared to be used again this time round. The Green Room is the name given to a non-democratic process whereby some of the wealthier delegates have had closed door discussions on various issues shutting out majority of the members, maybe allowing a very small, select number of developing countries in. They then work out the text of agreements to either accept or reject (not to debate, which limits the choices and options most nations have, as a result). In Seattle this was one of the major reasons for the failure of those talks (although the mainstream media mostly attributed the failure to the protests). See the above-mentioned Seattle page for more on this aspect.

Much in the same way as developing countries' concerns were ignored in the lead up to the meeting, so too were civil society's concerns as mentioned, for example, by Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians.

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The "New Issues"

For a long time, the EU and Japan were pushing for discussion on "new issues". (The U.S. is also for this as well, but not as much as the other two.) These new issues include:

  • Investment;
  • Competition;
  • Transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation.

Martin Khor summarizes the concerns of developing countries:

Most developing countries and NGOs are worried that the new treaties would create onerous obligations that would be very detrimental to developing countries. The new issues are aimed at opening their markets for foreign firms and their products to enter and to operate with minimal government regulation; as a result, local firms (that are very small and weak compared to the foreign giants) would find it hard to survive. Their loss of business or closure would cause significant job losses.

Moreover, governments would lose a large part of their present right to make domestic policies in key economic and social areas, and national sovereignty would be compromised.

Martin Khor, Why the New Issues should Not be on the Negotiating Agenda, Third World Network, November 10, 2001

Furthermore, the concerns pointed out by developing countries on these new issues, quoting from the above article, include the following:

  • The WTO is a multilateral trade organisation that makes and enforces rules. It should stick to its mandate for dealing with trade issues.
  • Principles (such as transparency, national treatment) and operations, that were created for a regime dealing with TRADE issues may not be suitable when applied to NON-TRADE issues.
  • Developed countries would like to bring many non-trade issues into WTO, not because it would strengthen the trade system, but because they want to make use of the enforcement system of WTO involving trade sanctions.
  • If these non-trade issues are brought into WTO, and WTO principles as interpreted by developed countries are applied to them, developing countries will be at great disadvantage, and would lose a great deal of their economic sovereignty, and their ability to make national policies of their own regarding economic, financial, social and political issues.
  • The new issues would occupy the prime time of diplomats, diverting scarce time and human resources from resolving the problems of "implementation."
  • As the new issues heavily favour the developed countries, the WTO system would become even more imbalanced and inequitable.

In summary, the concerns about the investment issues are the same concerns that surround the controversial General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), a legally binding set of rules covering international trade in services. (See the above link for more details on these new issues themselves, and why they are of concern. Also, see also this site's part of the WTO page that talks GATS.) For concerns about the competition issues, see this site's section on corporations and human rights, which discusses foreign direct investment. See also the above article, which points out that competition itself is not always bad, but how it is manipulated and concentrated, etc., that is often the issue. One of the aims for example is to prevent protecting local industries or local monopolies. For developing countries, however, opening up to foreign investment and not protecting their own industries that cannot compete can be economic suicide. That is, the "level" playing field is at a far too high a level to be fair for them. Concern about transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation is about extending the agreement from transparency to add market access and national treatment for foreign firms. See again the above article for more details.

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Other Issues negotiated

As with the Seattle conference, the other issues being negotiated and discussed are still fraught with similar problems and concerns. (Especially along to lines of how developing country voices are side-lined.)

With regards to Services, GATS, the General Agreement on Trade in Services is being further pushed, despite long-standing concerns from developing countries and CSOs.

With regards to intellectual property rights, TRIPS, the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights provides global enforceable rules on patents, copyright and trademarks. While just reward for one's innovation is fair, TRIPS has been controversial and seen as denying technology to the poor, amongst many other issues. (See for example, this site's section on the WTO that discusses TRIPS.) Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians comments that, "The United States, Canada, Switzerland and Japan have signalled their intention to block any type of consensus making the TRIPS agreement more flexible for poorer countries. Several countries, led by Brazil and India, have been vigorously lobbying for a declaration by ministers at Doha. It would declare that 'nothing in the TRIPs agreement shall prevent governments from taking measures to protect public health.'" Patent-related issues have for example, in best cases delayed the ability of nations such as Brazil and India as well as others to do something about it in their own countries, in terms of producing more affordable medicines. (In worst cases, it has contributed to many deaths. See this site's section on corporations and AIDS for more information on that aspect.)

In Agriculture as well as many other industries, such as textiles, there is concern about how Europe in particular, as well as US, are often protectionist on imports. At the same time, they demand poor countries to liberalize and open up, allowing the ability to dump products, especially agricultural products on to those countries, stifling local industries. In agricultural issues, dumping is a critical problem to urgently address as it can lead to further poverty, hunger, misery, economic dependency and so on. However, because it is often a political tool as well as economic, it is often a difficult one to discuss in negotiations in a manner that will see positive outcomes. (See this site's food dumping section for more on these aspects.)

The BBC reported on November 9, 2001 how business interests and influence managed to result in secret negotiations between lobby groups for industry with government in designing European and American proposals for radical pro-business changes in WTO rules. While NGOs and CSOs have been unsuccessful in gaining consistent access to governments and various documents, business lobbies etc have been able to quite easily. The same concerns have confounded free trade issues for years.

Other strong concerns like those seen with NAFTA, FTAA etc are further highlighted here at the Doha meetings. (For more on those, see this site's section on regional free trade agreements.)

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The Outcomes of the Meeting

There were no doubt mixed reactions resulting from the conclusion of the meeting.

Some claimed that success on specific issues were important, such as on the health and patent related issues and access to medicines. That is, governments are able to take measures to protect public health a bit more easily. Now, if drug companies price drugs beyond the reach of people who need them, governments can override patents (granting "compulsory licenses", for example) without the fear of backlash from rich countries and pharmaceutical companies, as has currently been the issue. (Effects from structural adjustment may also be an issue still, but some see this as a start, especially on more immediate health crisis such as AIDS.) Also, the above-mentioned "new issues" are to be kept in "study mode" as India and a few other countries has objected to the inclusion of these issues without adequate notice. There was a bit more emphasis on the environment too. But, on much else, as "developing countries can be bulldozed into agreeing a huge trade agenda which could exacerbate poverty and inequality" according to Oxfam in a press release of theirs.

The final Declaration, which is to be used to launch a new round of negotiations resulted in heavy criticism from The World Development Movement who said that this is "a disaster for the world's poor." Barry Coates, Director of the World Development Movement commenting on the whole Doha meeting said,

"This is a massive defeat for poor people around the world. The much hyped development round is empty of development. This massive extension of the WTO is both reckless and dangerous. It will further undermine the WTO's legitimacy. The cost of current trade agreements is already being counted in people's lives. Developing countries do not have the capacity or the wish to negotiate these new agreements." (Emphasis Added)

Who forgot to put development in the development round?, World Development Movement, 14 November 2001

Yet, quoting from a WTO summary, a different picture of the outcome, in apparent contrast to the World Development Movement statement would appear:

Ministers from WTO member governments approved a work programme - which they called "broad and balanced" - that includes negotiations on a range of subjects and other tasks for the coming years.

"The success of our conference at this difficult time is ... especially important as a reaffirmation of the determination of the international community to work together to respond to these challenges for a better future," said Conference chairman, Qatari Finance, Economy and Trade Minister Youssef Hussain Kamal.

Director-General [of the WTO] Mike Moore said: "This conference has been a remarkable experience for all of us. It has been difficult, because we have been dealing with some of the most sensitive issues in international trade policy, and many governments have had to move towards the positions of their partners to make this agreement possible."

Summary of 14 November, World Trade Organization, November 14, 2001

(See also, for example, this report from the South Centre and note also the descriptions of the result of this meeting from the likes of Mike Moore, WTO director-general and of US and European representatives.)

Yet, "broad and balanced" are not likely part of the criticisms that abound. Focus on Global South and Food First, in a joint report, were very vocal of the outcome for poor countries:

What is clear is that, contrary to the claims of European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, Doha did not launch a "development round." The key points of the Doha Declaration, in fact, contradict the interests of the developing countries. For example,

  • There is only a perfunctory acknowledgement of the need to review implementation issues, which was the key agenda of the developing countries coming into Doha;
  • The language on the phasing out of agricultural subsidies is watered down owing to the strong objections of the European Union;
  • There is no commitment to an early phase-out of textile and garment quotas because of the strong resistance of the United States;
  • The demand for a "development box" to promote food security and development which was being pushed by a number of developing countries was completely ignored;
  • There is no commitment to change the wording of the TRIPs (Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights) agreement to accommodate developing countries' overriding of patents for public health purposes;
  • There is no commitment to change the TRIPs agreement to outlaw biopiracy and patents on life, which was a key developing country concern coming into Doha;
  • The declaration eliminates the reference in the draft to the International Labor Organization (ILO) being the appropriate forum for addressing labor and trade issues, which leaves the door open for the WTO to assert its jurisdiction in an area where it has no authority or competence.

Walden Bello, (Focus on the Global South) and Anuradha Mittal, (Food First), The Meaning of Doha, November 14, 2001

Furthermore, while some organizations pointed out that there could at least be some progress on patent and health-related issues for the poor countries, Bello and Mittal continued from the above to point out that "The resolution of the TRIPs and public health issue is being trumpeted as a victory for developing countries. This is exaggerated. While an attachment to the declaration does recognize that there is nothing in TRIPs that would prevent countries from taking measures to promote public health, there is no commitment to change the wording of the TRIPs agreement. This is a serious flaw since TRIPs as it is currently written can serve as the basis for future legal challenges to countries that override patents in the interest of public health." So while on the surface there has been some positive wording, underneath, the root issues are perhaps still there.

(Indeed, one year after writing the above, the Guardian reports (December 21, 2002) that "Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, ... blocked a global deal to provide cheap drugs to poor countries, following intense lobbying of the White House by America's pharmaceutical giants.")

They even described the whole process as "A Defeat for Democracy and Development: ... a defeat for the developing countries, notwithstanding the resistance they--and in particular, India--put up against arm-twisting, blackmail, and intimidation from the big trading powers. Those of us in Doha were witness, as the Equations team puts it, "to the highhanded unethical negotiating practices of the developed countries - linking aid budgets and trade preferences to the trade positions of developing countries and targeting individual developing country negotiators."

These are serious accusations and concerns which are not being addressed by northern leaders, who instead talk in more abstract terms. Similar criticisms from developing countries and civil society organizations have accompanied most international economic and trade meetings, but as what seems to be usual now, are not seriously addressed. The various issues presented throughout this web site, are therefore still of concern.

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More Information

For more detailed information on these issues, or for on-going coverage of the talks as they happen, etc, you can start at the following web sites:

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Where next?

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, November 11, 2001
  • Last Updated: Sunday, December 22, 2002

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