Business Joins WTO Ministerial Meeting this week

The World Trade Organization (WTO) will be holding its 8th Ministerial Conference in Geneva this week. The meeting is likely to be lacklustre, tailing out on several months of bemusement as to what the meeting should actually do, and what, in the context of the long-suffering Doha Round of trade negotiations, it can achieve. None the less international negotiations can take unexpected turns, so most WTO Member countries will send delegations well prepared to take up issues should a spark of unexpected progress ignite. South Africa is no exception. We are pleased to report that Lambert Botha will be part of the official South African delegation attending the Ministerial Conference as one of three representatives of the private sector through Business Unity South Africa (BUSA).

The ‘8th’ refers to the eighth time that the ministers of trade, the highest decision making body in the WTO, will meet since the WTO opened for businesses on 1 January 1995. The agreement establishing the WTO requires this meeting to take place every two years and grants the ministers the authority to take decisions on any matter related to the organization’s Multilateral Trade Agreements. The previous meeting was also held in Geneva and was in early December 2009. That meeting also did little to progress the Doha Round of trade negotiations and was plagued by violence and arson on the streets of a wintry Geneva. This is becoming somewhat of a disturbing pattern as the 2007 meeting was skipped over completely as there was not going to be any visible progress, and a non-result at the time was thought to be systemically harmful to the trading system. The other Ministerial Conferences in the Doha era were the launch of trade round itself at the 2001 meeting in Qatar, followed by Cancún in 2003 and Hong Kong in 2005, Hong Kong being where the last ‘substantial’ negotiation of Doha Development Agenda issues took place at a full ministerial level.

Even if, as some are starting to suggest, the Doha Round is despatched conclusion-less and unceremoniously to the vaults of history, the present WTO agreements remain unquestionably in force. This means that the work of the regular WTO bodies in their role for maintaining and implementing existing Agreements; dispute settlement and avoidance; transparency through monitoring and reporting and as a forum for the consideration of trade-related issues raised by Members; while perhaps mundane at times, remains highly relevant.

If nothing else, a positive and upbeat outcome of the Ministerial Conference will be the confirmation of membership to the WTO for Vanuatu, Samoa, and the Russian Federation. This is symbolically very meaningful as the Russian Federation is the last outstanding major global player, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to be drawn into the global trading rules at the WTO. These accessions bring the membership to 156 countries, and Montenegro is due to follow short on their heels brining that number to 157 members. It is notable that 123 countries signed the WTO Agreement upon the establishment of the body back in 1994. Despite civil critiques of globalization and serious economic introspection on globalization in the wake of the ongoing global recession of 2008, no country has ever left the WTO. On the contrary membership has now grown by almost 30% since the body was established – food for thought indeed.

Businesses wishing to make final inputs as to late red flags, especially on potential developments on the WTO’s government procurement rules, are welcome to engage with us this week.