|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
1 - 7 November 2001
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Warming up for WTOAhead of the Doha conference this month, Arab countries are working on strategies to improve their standing in the WTO. Dina Ezzat reports
Arab countries, in consultations for the upcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Doha, focused on strategies to increase the benefits of membership and minimise additional obligations, a major concern due to the deepening global recession.
In Beirut this week, representatives of Arab countries, in coordination with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Economic and Social Commission of Western Asia (ESCWA), met to prepare for the next ministerial meeting of the WTO that will open in Doha in 10 days. This meeting was the fourth round in a process of Arab consultations that began in June in Geneva to prepare for Doha.
On Monday and Tuesday, delegates examined a draft for the Doha Declaration, covering issues related to the work of the WTO. They also reviewed a proposed declaration on access to medicine and intellectual property rights.
"Arab countries, who are members of the WTO, are here in Beirut to exchange views and compare experiences in preparation for the Doha meeting," said Mervat El-Telawi, the secretary executive director of ESCWA. "Each of the 11 Arab member states of the WTO has a particular negotiating strength or area of expertise, which, if combined, could create a collective Arab stand that could be voiced in Doha," El-Telawi added.
The Beirut meeting reviewed the Arab position on the EU proposal for a new round of trade negotiations. The EU expects to be pressured to lower barriers to agricultural imports when comprehensive WTO negotiations on agriculture are conducted. Consequently, it hopes to increase its benefits in other areas through a new round of negotiations.
Arab WTO member states are generally opposed to a new round of negotiations. The Arab position, like that of many developing countries, is against a comprehensive round of talks on the basis that it might entail new obligations. Many of these countries are facing difficulty implementing the stipulations of the Uruguay Round, in part, they say, due to the reluctance of developed countries to fulfil their obligations to provide technical and financial assistance towards this end.
For example, the agricultural exports of several developing countries, Arab ones included, to developed countries have been turned back due to "seeds treatment" reservations. A dearth of technical and financial assistance from developed countries has hampered developing countries' efforts to meet their target markets' regulations concerning seeds.
This said, some Arab WTO members, like Morocco for example, argue that a limited round of negotiations may not be such a bad idea since it offers the possibility of winning new concessions. The US has called for such a limited round of "early harvest negotiations," arguing that the swift pace of the development in electronic commerce merits speedier liberalisation.
Arab countries at the Beirut meeting were united in their view that implementation should be the key subject of discussion in Doha. They argue that the upcoming conference needs to find a way to end the ongoing exclusion of developing countries from the process of elaborating international standards. Currently, the WTO mechanism for settling disputes asks, if not forces, developing countries to comply with these standards irrespective of the fact that conformity, in many instances, is beyond their technical and financial capacities.
"Developing countries are forced to comply with WTO standards even though the WTO-declared objective of a larger export market share and better living standards for people [in developing countries] is not being achieved," commented Ambassador Saad El-Farargi, the Arab League's permanent representative to the Geneva-based UN organisations. El-Farargi, who took part in the Beirut meeting, referred to the issue of pharmaceuticals as "particularly significant."
The WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has often been criticised by anti- globalisation activists. They argue that WTO-imposed property rights undermine the obvious human right of access to health care because they permit pharmaceutical companies to raise prices as part of their prerogatives as patent holders. Arab delegates meeting in Beirut agreed that the Doha conference should extend the 10-year transitional period for implementing TRIPS that ends in 2005.
The Beirut meeting also asserted that Doha should provide additional clarification on certain provisions, particularly those related to aspects of TRIPS, that allow for flexibility in its implementation. Delegates asserted that clarification is crucial concerning the TRIPS provision for compulsory licensing of certain patents in situations where national health security is jeopardised. Similarly, they said further explanation is required about the TRIPS stipulation that permits the parallel import of medicine (import from a third country licensed to produce the drug) so that the medicine is available at lower prices in emergency situations.
Arab countries that are WTO members are Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Djibouti, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania. The Beirut meeting provided an educational forum for five Arab countries that are negotiating to join the organisation: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen and Lebanon.
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