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 page1 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.

On this page:

  1. Political Backdrop
  2. Developing Country reactions to Doha WTO Round
  3. Processes at the WTO Meetings were Unfair for Developing Countries
  4. The "New Issues"
  5. Other Issues negotiated
  6. The Outcomes of the Meeting
  7. More Information

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 Marines2 had been deployed to Qatar!) However, protests occured in other cities around the world3 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) reports4, "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 out5 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 protests6 in 1999. See also this site's section on protests around the world7 that addresses this in further detail as well. The Mainstream Media and Free Trade8 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 twisting9 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 opposed10 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 vocal11 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 WTO12, The Guardian, November 12, 2001

(That there would be "arm twisting", "bully-boy tactics" and pressure13 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 Declaration14 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 Doha15, Third World Network, November 10, 2001

Both in the process that created it, and in the content of it, the draft Declaration was described16 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 out17, 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 Barlow18, 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 Agenda19, 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