WTO Ministerial Conference 13-18 December 2005 - Hong
focus by the United Nations Office of the High Representative
for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing
Countries and Small Island Developing States
Make or break time on subsidies
Thursday, 08 December 2005
The World Trade Organization Sixth Ministerial Conference
opens in just four days at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.
This is the biggest event in Hong Kong since reunification and,
in terms of complexity, probably the most challenging event
Hong Kong has ever staged. As host, we've got to get it right.
We have a dedicated team, putting in very long hours working
out plans and contingencies for all the possible scenarios that
might take place when you have more than 11,000 individuals
accredited to a conference and another 10,000 or more on the
streets protesting about that very conference.
The outcome of what may or may not happen inside the conference
hall will have a great significance in the medium and longer
term on the shape of the world economy.
Negotiations leading up to the ministerial conference have been
fraught with difficulties. They always are. That is the nature
of trade negotiations.
The main sticking point has come in the area of agriculture,
where many countries, both in the developed and developing world,
are arguing over the levels of reduction in farm subsidies and
tariff barriers in the rich countries such as the United States
and the European Union.
The Americans have put a bold reform offer on the table, conditional
on it being matched by the other big players, notably the EU.
But the Europeans' counter offer has been poorly received, with
most other WTO members saying it does not go nearly far enough.
Whether or not the EU will go any further next week, or even
early next year, is moot.
The issue is crucial because this round of negotiations is all
about helping the poor economies get a better and bigger share
of world trade, particularly in agriculture.
Many of the developing and least developed economies rely almost
exclusively on farming for their exports, and in some cases
have a single agricultural product, such as cotton, sugar or
That's why so much emphasis has been placed on this issue in
what is formally known as the Doha Development Agenda. And because
of this, progress in agriculture negotiations has been linked
to other important agenda items, like services, industrial tariffs
and a number of significant development matters.
All of these items are on the table in Hong Kong next week,
when ministers from the WTO's 148 member economies - it will
actually become 149 with the accession of Saudi Arabia - sit
down to thrash out solutions to some knotty problems. They will
need to do this in a form that will enable us to drive forward
into next year so that we can conclude the round by the end
Why the end of 2006? The US president's so-called fast track
authority on trade agreements expires in early 2007, and nobody
expects it to be renewed by Congress.
So we must come up with a credible package by the end of next
year to meet that deadline.
Given the political situation in the US, and the presidential
election cycle, it's hard to see another fast-track approval
getting through Congress for probably another five years. That
puts even more pressure on the ministers to show political will
and global vision in next week's meeting. As chairman of the
ministerial, I see myself as the honest broker bringing together
all the conflicting and often contradictory interests and agendas
of the member economies.
This is a difficult but necessary task because the WTO is a
member-driven organization. All decisions are taken by consensus.
In WTO-speak, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
This makes decision-making awkward and time consuming, but it
has the virtue of being both democratic and legally-binding
on members once agreement is reached.
Hand wringing and breast beating are all part of the negotiating
I have been a public official long enough not to be starry-eyed.
It's just that when I see problems, I look for solutions.
Last weekend I returned from a whirlwind trip to Brussels and
Geneva. In Brussels I attended a meeting of the G90 group of
trade ministers of the developing and least developed economies.
I had separate bilateral meetings with a number of those ministers
as well. In Geneva, I attended the last meeting of the WTO's
General Council, which adopted a draft Ministerial Declaration
to be presented to the ministers at next week's conference.
In my view, it contains the bones of an agreement that would
take us forward to next year.
When I addressed the General Council, I assured members that,
as the conference chairman, I would insist on a transparent
and inclusive process.
I also made the point that as a member-driven organization,
it is up to the members to make or break this conference. We
must exercise our collective responsibility to make it a success.
I certainly believe the pre- conference atmosphere is not bad.
It is true that we have not traveled as far down the track as
we would have hoped, essentially because of the roadblock over
agriculture. But in Brussels and Geneva, I sensed a strong mood
for progress. Now that the ministerial is upon us, WTO members
by and large want to see a credible outcome in Hong Kong.
If I am right about the atmospherics, and the desire to do a
deal, what we will need now is the political will to turn that
into something tangible.
We'll know by the end of next week whether or not that political
will is there. Precisely what shape the outcome will take I
I believe, however, that Hong Kong will not end in failure as
did Cancun or Seattle. Another failure would come pretty close
to destroying the WTO's credibility for years to come. The fallout
from that would mean increasing bilateralism in world trade
deals, the only result of which would be further imbalance between
rich and poor. Frankly, that path can lead to instability on
a global scale.
Look at the other side of the coin: a successful Doha Development
Round. The World Bank estimates and that it could add US$300
billion (HK$2.34 trillion) annually to the global economy over
the next decade to the year 2015. It has the potential to bring
140 million people who live on less than US$2 a day out of their
miserable existence. Sixty million of these wretchedly poor
people live in sub-Sahara Africa alone. Agriculture is the only
export of many of these poor countries.
Do we really want to tell them that protecting a relatively
small number of farmers in rich and prosperous countries is
more important than giving them the means to trade their way
to a better life for themselves and their children?