Doha Talks in Limbo

The WTO’s General Council officially suspended the Doha negotiations on 27 July 2006 with no indication as to when the talks will resume, giving rise to some considered opinion that the talks may be extended by up to 4 years over the intended end date of December 2006.

In the creation of this negotiating impasse, Africa has seemed generally ‘shy’ in its response. This is perhaps indicative that its interests are largely defensive. It is notable that while African countries have been strong proponents of a bottom-up all inclusive approach to the negotiation process in the special sessions of the committee on agriculture, there was surprisingly little resistance or objection when the negotiation impasse emerged at the behest of the G6 (which excludes Africa) at the end of July 2006. African countries were rather quiet contributors to the consensus agreement of the General Council that subsequently endorsed the G6 decision. This leaves one with the impression that Africa is more sensitive to progression than to a stalemate. In other words perhaps it is likely that Africa would have been more vociferous had the G6 actually made a breakthrough and thereby spurring the need for Africa to potentially raise its special interest needs within the final compromise. There has also been some African interest in the possibility of a ‘pain free’ or ‘costless’ round as an alternative to the current set of draft modalities. Reformist voices have however resisted this and indicated that the status quo would remain in the absence of an ambitious result.

Whatever the extended timetable to resume the Doha negotiations might be, it is worth remembering that the WTO is not dead because of the present impasse. The existing covered agreements do not simply vanish. The existing intricate mechanism of rights and obligations remains intact under international law. Bearing this in mind, it becomes more important for us now to defend our existing rights under the covered agreements via dispute settlement, an area where Africans (including South Africa) have been traditionally shy. Allied to this, African governments are likely to experience an increase in pressure from their industries for contingent trade remedy actions against dumping and subsidies, as they realise that the impacts of these practices will not be dismantled via the trade round. In other words there remains a wealth of trade law to be practiced in the WTO with or without the resolution of the July 2006 Doha Round impasse.