Special Safeguard Mechanism Blamed in WTO Impasse

The Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) is a topic that has become a rallying point to the standard of the development aspect of the Doha Round for most developing countries. The tool was borne in the agriculture negotiations, and is essentially a safeguard that only developing countries will be able to use to deal with import surges, price falls or a combination of both. It is in many ways a developing country response to the traditional ‘special safeguard’ used by great effect by primarily developed countries under the Uruguay agriculture rules.

In negotiating on the SSM at the July 2008 Mini Ministerial meeting, the core negotiating group, the G-7 countries, found unbridgeable differences on the SSM topic. This was essentially in regard to the triggers for breaching the pre-Doha (Uruguay Round) bound tariff rates using this mechanism. Allied to this was the question as to how far one could go above that rate and how often this could be done. There will likely not be any ready convergence on these two factors in the absence of an agreement as to the fundamental question as to what the pre-condition would need to be to breach these tariff levels at all.

In this regard it is then probable that the differences on the SSM were not just a technical disagreement. More pointedly the impasse was more political and less technical in nature. The fundamental issues were, on the one hand, whether you can breach pre-Doha bound rates and, if so, on what terms and conditions and, on the other hand, how you can make a SSM mechanism genuinely operational for developing country Members if there is an a priori ceiling constraint of such a kind.

These are not new issues. They have been present throughout the history of the Doha Round and have represented a distinct North-South divide as developing countries have (of better or quite plausibly worse) learnt from the existing rules and adopted some of the worst excesses that the developed world employed post 1995 using the existing special safeguard (SSG) in the Agreement on Agriculture. Based on the 2003 Cancun and 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial meetings, one may have expected that the SSM would emerge as a substantive and essentially political charged element capable of driving divisions, which it certainly did in July 2008. This being said it is highly questionable whether the round would have been ‘saved’ had this issue been resolved. There is good reason to speculate that other untouched issues, especially the cotton mandate, had the potential to be as cumbersome, if not more so.