Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Role of the WTO Secretariat in the context of the Doha negotiations

Petros C. Mavroidis in his article "Doha, Dohalf or Dohaha? The WTO licks its wounds" written prior to the Ministerial Conference predicted the likely scenarios of the Doha negotiations. He alluded to the role the WTO Secretariat must play in the emerging scenario -
"In my view, the role of the WTO Secretariat is to administer the WTO: make sure dispute settlement functions well and the committees are adequately served. The WTO should, upon request, also be there to serve the trading nations, being a common agent for many principals. However, the key word in the sentence is ‘upon request’. A pro-active attitude can, besides personal perks, be translated into credit for the institution in case of success, but might be quite costly in case of failure. There were enough warning signals to dissuade the WTO Secretariat from emulating past examples and mimicking, for example, the ‘Dunkel Draft’ through a ‘Lamy Draft’. The former did not win the argument the day it was presented but managed to gather momentum and provide the quintessential elements of the Marrakesh Agreement; there was absolutely no guarantee that the latter, had it seen the light of day, could have even come close. Moreover, Dunkel produced his draft knowing that it would not be accepted as such by the trading nations. But he wanted them to have something to think about and negotiate upon. We are not in a similar situation now. 

 On the other hand, the WTO has a very important mandate which is independent of the success/failure of  rounds - discussions in the various committees that manage to produce better communication across trading nations and resolve many disputes as well. A look into the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee for example, suffices to persuade the observer that dozens of specific trade concerns are being resolved at this level without the need to go to dispute settlement and the ensuing administrative cost for the WTO.

 Servicing negotiators next to all this  is stretching existing administrative capacity to its limits. Making the Secretariat co-responsible for the observed failure to conclude negotiations is unfair. Those arguing that this is a member-driven institution should be prepared to assume the consequences of their understanding of the WTO.  

 In a nutshell, the WTO would be better served if it were limited to preparing ‘useful papers’ for its principals, the WTO Members."
Arguing against a pro-active WTO Secretariat as against its members, he tends to limit the role to 'advise' on request as well as administering the existing Agreements. This also highlights the role of the Dispute Settlement mechanism in the overall context of the WTO who view the failure of the Doha round as bringing to an end the role of the WTO. It is a fact that trade rules if not amended over time would not reflect the realities of a complex globalised trade world. This could have a bearing on the legal interpretations of the WTO Agreements (to make it more receptive to trade realities) which in turn might raise tensions between the "quasi-judicial" powers of the WTO and its members. Nevertheless, the issue of the extent to which the Secretariat itself should be the proponent of change and reform is a debatable one.

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