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WTO Struggles To Regroup After Cancun Summit Disaster

by Gustavo Capdevila

on failed WTO session at Cancun
(IPS) GENEVA -- The revival of the WTO negotiations will depend on the attitude taken in the talks this week with the world's leading trade powers, which have so far maintained a significant silence, say diplomatic sources.

The chairman of the World Trade Organization General Council, Carlos Perez del Castillo, described as "useful" the first round of consultations, held last month in the wake of the failed ministerial meeting Sept. 10-14 in Cancun, Mexico.

The Uruguayan diplomat, encouraged by subsequent meetings in October, decided to go ahead with a second phase of conversations, which he says are to wrap up by Dec. 5.

Just 10 days later, the WTO, obligated by the only substantive decision to come out of the Cancun meeting, will have to come up with a formula for overcoming the current stagnation of the negotiations.

Despite the looming deadlines, Perez del Castillo told IPS that he remains focused on reaching Dec. 15 with the results "that the ministers were unable to obtain" in Cancun.

It all depends on what happens this week, when the consultations will take up deeper issues, said the WTO official, who began conversations on Oct. 14 with representatives of the 146 WTO member states.

The discussions revolve around farm trade, industrial tariffs, cotton subsidies and what are known as the Singapore issues, which include investment, competition rules, government procurement and trade facilitation.

In these contacts, Perez del Castillo said he noted "a sense of commitment from all parties," which persuaded him to go after more substantial negotiations.

However, the optimism of the WTO General Council chairman is not shared by everyone.

Argentina's chief negotiator at the WTO, Alfredo Chiaradia, points to the silence maintained by the leading trade powers: the United States, European Union, Japan and other industrialized nations.

It is telling that the countries that traditionally play an important role in WTO negotiations have not spoken up, the diplomat said in a conversation with IPS.

Argentina, as well as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and other developing countries comprise the Group of 20 (G20), which emerged in the weeks leading up to the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun.

The G20 came about as a coordinated response to the U.S.-EU proposal for negotiating an agreement on agricultural trade, presented Aug. 13, a month before the Cancun meeting.

The differences between the G20 and the two trade powers on the matter of farm subsidies has created an unprecedented rift in the WTO -- and played a key role in the events that led to the debacle in Mexico.

A bloc of African nations contributed to the downfall when they declared their outright refusal to negotiate the four Singapore issues in Cancun.

Amidst the uncertainty following the ministerial meet, the African countries and the G20 have been more active and unified in recent weeks.

A meeting of trade ministers from 12 African countries over the weekend in Cairo declared that the main trade issue for the continent is market access for its agricultural commodities -- the same demand against the industrialised North that brought the G20 countries together in the first place.

The 12 African ministers acknowledged that the two blocs hold many positions in common, "and that the G20 could be effective advocates for the cause of African countries in agriculture."

The countries participating in the Cairo meeting were Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauricio, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.

India's chief negotiator at the WTO, K.M. Chandrasekhar, said the Cairo statement shows that the African group and the G20 are closer to working together.

The areas of agreement are likely the three pillars of farm trade negotiations, "domestic support, export subsidies and market access," he said.

"Basically, as developing countries, we have the same concerns, so we could work together on all these issues," Chandrasekhar told IPS.

While among the WTO member states there has been some shuffling of the blocs, the process for renewing negotiations advances at a snail's pace.

Perez del Castillo admitted the possibility that Dec. 15 could arrive and there will be no agreement. "But if we don't reach one, it will not be a total failure," he argued. In February, negotiators can put together what they are unable to do in December, he said.

By then, the annual renovation of posts at the WTO will have taken place, and the Uruguayan diplomat will leave his General Council chairmanship.

The rotation among regional groups means that next year the chairman of the council, the WTO's maximum authority when the ministerial conferences are not in session, will be from an industrialised country. Two candidates, Tim Groser, of New Zealand, and Shotaro Oshima, of Japan, are vying for the job.

Latin American diplomatic sources said that Perez del Castillo will return to Uruguay in late February to take over the post as foreign minister of the Jorge Batlle government.

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Albion Monitor November 19, 2003 (

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