WTO faces crucial test in Doha next week

Representatives from 142 nations are expected to sit down in Doha, Qatar, next Friday for the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) fourth Ministerial Conference, the first such high-level meeting of the group since its Seattle Ministerial Conference ended in chaos amid large-scale civil disturbance two years ago.

The cloud of the Seattle protests, which cost the city around US$3 million in damage and resulted in the arrest of around 600 people, has been hanging over the WTO ever since. The Doha meeting is unlikely to face the same types of protests. Qatar, according to the U.S. Department of State’s most recent report on human rights, “severely limits freedom of assembly” and “generally does not allow political demonstrations.” However, the government has said that a small number of protestors will be admitted.

Greater danger for the WTO this time will be coming not from outside, but inside the meeting hall where the main work will be to get the 142 delegates to agree on the launch of a new round of global trade talks – talks in which several important information technology issues are expected to be prominent.

Failure to reach agreement on the launch of a new round of talks will, say some, lead the WTO’s role in world trade to be diminished as countries begin to work on bilateral or regional agreements such as those being pursued by Japan with individual neighbors or the grander Free Trade Area of the Americas. From the point of major trading nations, such deals often cover the vast majority of their trade and so reduce the importance of global deals and thus the WTO.

While disagreeing that the WTO’s role would be diminished if a new round of talks fails to come out of the meeting, Mike Moore, the director-general of the WTO, said in a letter to journalists that failure at Doha is expected to lead to changes. “I believe it’s true that the trade focus in many nations will shift away from Geneva if we fall short of success in Doha,” he said.

Approaching the meeting, the United States is among the nations that are pushing electronic commerce to be a major part of any new trade round. U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that e-commerce, along with manufacturing, services and agriculture, will be a priority for the United States, according to his prepared remarks.

“The WTO rules also need to be updated to tap the potential of high-tech innovations and e-commerce,” he said. “Transactions over networks are providing enormous growth opportunities for any service that can reach customers electronically – be it retailing, financial, information, or entertainment services. The opportunity for developing countries is vast – providing them with new, more efficient means to reach global markets for products and services in which they have a competitive advantage.”

The WTO’s greatest achievement so far in the field of e-commerce has been a broad agreement from member states not to impose special duties on e-commerce transactions – something that was pledged to remain until at least the Doha summit and is likely to be extended to the WTO’s next Ministerial Conference, expected sometime in 2003.

Discussions in Doha could include the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement (ITA). Under the ITA, IT products including computers, software, telecom equipment, semiconductors, semiconductor manufacturing equipment and scientific instruments can move tariff-free between the 56 nations that are signatories to the agreement. Together, these countries account for 93 percent of trade in such items, according to the WTO’s estimates.

Work is now underway to expand both the number of countries that have signed on to the ITA and expand the number of products that it covers. This latter expansion, for an ITA-II treaty, has been at the center of discussions since 1998 with the main sticking point being the inclusion of some consumer electronics items that can also be used with computers, according to the group.

A year earlier, the ITA Committee also approved a one-year work program to investigate non-tariff measures facing IT products. These include issues such as technical and safety standards that can also impede the free-flow of equipment around the world.

The WTO Ministerial Conference will take place in Doha, Qatar, from Nov. 9 to 13. More information is available online at http://www.wto-ministerial.org/.

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