WTO (Negotiations, Regular Work, Leadership)

Middle East and North Africa Trade Forum: Way Forward Post-MC12

Highlights from a recent paper by CUTS were presented, focusing on seven key action items agreed in the MC12 outcome document. These can be broadly categorised as follows: (i) general issues of systematic and institutional importance to the WTO (i.e., special and differential treatment (SNDT), WTO reform and dispute settlement); (ii) issues specific to least developed countries (LDCs) (i.e., services waiver, duty free and quota free market access and preferential rules of origin); and (iii) trade facilitation (i.e., transit issues for landlocked countries).

Discussing the action points, delegates offered their thoughts and reflections on the outcomes of MC12 and the way forward, as summarised below.

12th WTO ministerial conference (MC12)

The delegates acknowledged that MC12 was different from previous ministerial conferences, both in terms of the challenges leading up to the conference and in terms of the package of outcomes that the conference produced. Delegates emphasised the importance of MC12 package for restoring the trust of the global community in the WTO’s continuing relevance. A delegate further highlighted the power of developing countries in achieving desirable results when they are united by a common objective and vision.

WTO reform and dispute settlement

The delegates noted the explicit inclusion of WTO reform on the agenda of a ministerial outcome for the first time. In practical terms, several delegates stressed upon the need to clearly define the scope and coverage of the intended reform, starting by identifying a common purpose which guides such reform and the modalities to implement it. There was also broad agreement that reform of the dispute settlement system is a priority, subject to the caveat that challenges of developing countries’ access to the dispute settlement system merit special consideration.

Special and Differential Treatment (SNDT)

Many of the delegates who took the floor shared their thoughts about the SNDT paragraph in the MC12 outcome document, especially the interpretation of the instruction to ‘improve the application of SNDT’. There was particular concern on whether the S&DT provisions reform would continue under the Doha mandate to ensure effective implementation of existing S&DT provisions. A delegate particularly emphasised the importance of a pragmatic approach towards SNDT provisions that address the needs of developing countries and provide the technical assistance and capacity building needed for them to meet their obligations.

Despite there being no direct reference to the Doha mandate, the process would continue before the Committee on Trade and Development-Special Session as it has been until now.

LDC issues and graduation

The delegates recognised the importance of having LDC graduation–specific issues acknowledged in the outcome document but noted that no concrete action was taken. Graduating LDCs were expecting a dedicated decision to ensure the needed support is provided and their concerns are addressed. A delegate highlighted the urgency of holding discussions on how to ensure a smooth transition for graduating LDCs.

Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) declaration

The delegates noted the importance of the declaration. In particular, they highlighted the opportunity to build on the Work Programme as a basis for future decisions. They also noted the importance of basing future SPS measures on scientific evidence and of acknowledging the special needs of developing and LDCs members when adopting such measures.

Way forward

The delegates noted the legal ambiguity and vagueness in some of the MC12 texts as well as the novel legal nature of an “outcome” document. This led to discussions about which concrete or practical actions would be required pursuant to the document. They also highlighted the relevance of certain issues that were mentioned without commitments, such as MSMEs, women empowerment and trade and environment, as creating possibilities for future actions at the WTO. Finally, the discussion underlined the need for interested members to push for issues of interest to them by engaging with their trade partners and developing concrete proposals.

It was also recalled that countries who are interested in specific issues would be expected to take action and push these issues forward at the WTO, taking advantage of their mention in the outcome document.