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Joint Civil Society Statement on the WTO High-Level Symposia on Trade and Environment and Trade and Development

The undersigned civil society organisations welcome the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) upcoming High-Level Symposia on Trade and Environment (March 15 -16, 1999), and Trade and Development (March 17 - 18, 1999). Our view is that these two meetings can provide an important multi-stakeholder platform to suggest imaginative ways forward on the complex issues of trade, environment and development. With the WTO preparing itself for its third Ministerial Conference and negotiations on the built-in agenda in November 1999, we believe that these two meetings could provide a valuable opportunity to reflect on the sustainability and equity challenges confronting the global trading system - challenges which are yet to be systematically addressed by the WTO and its Member States.

For these aspirations to be realised, however, steps need to be taken now to address certain basic problems with the High-Level Symposia as currently proposed. Our concerns relate to five key issues, namely: the status of the meetings, their linkage, the approach taken to them, the need for balanced participation, and an action-oriented focus for the meetings:

1. Meeting Status: We are concerned that since Sir Leon Brittain’s original proposal in March 1998 for a high-level political meeting to "break the log-jam" on trade and environment issues, there appears to have been a progressive downgrading by many WTO Member States to the importance attached to both this and the meeting on trade and development. To us this is suggested by the fact that the WTO now refers to them as "symposia" rather than high-level meetings. We hope this is not indicative of a slide in political commitment to the two meetings, which the WTO Secretary-General, as recently as December 1998 in his Annual Overview Report to the General Council, referred to as "...two major events in the life of our organisation."

Action needed: To remedy this, we urge all Member States to send high-level delegations to both meetings and ensure that there is integrated cross-departmental preparation for them.

2. Linkage: We strongly feel that the two meetings should frame their discussions in the context of how trade can contribute to overall sustainable development - an objective contained in the preamble of the WTO charter - rather than perpetuate the artificial, and unhelpful, divide between the environment and development.

Action needed: Link the agendas of the two meetings such that both environment and development angles can be discussed. This could be accomplished by taking a fresh look at some of fundamental issues underlying the trade, environment and development debate, rather than limiting the discussion to issues arising from the work programmes of the Committee on Trade and Environment and the Committee on Trade and Development respectively. For example, by considering the following questions -- which are all the more pertinent in the context of the growing backlash to economic globalisation:

  • How can the multilateral trading system respond to the growing inequality and environmental destruction that has accompanied the rapid growth of global trade in the post-war period?
  • How can trade liberalisation be turned from an end in itself, to a means to achieving economic development which provides net benefits for both poor people and the environment?
  • What are the implications of this new focus for greater institutional co-ordination and policy coherence at the international level?
  • What is the role of the WTO in promoting more sustainable and equitable patterns of production and consumption?
  • What is the balance between multilateral efforts (including on trade policy) and domestic measures to address endemic poverty, deepening inequalities and environment degradation?
  • How can developing countries be supported in their efforts to combat these ills such that they integrate into the global economy without risking domestic social unrest or eroding their natural capital?

We believe the format of the meetings must be interactive and allow for participation by all present. Our proposal would be for a combination of plenary sessions and specialist workshops. The specialist workshops could address topical issues such as assessments of the impact of trade agreements from a sustainability and gender perspective, or the implementation and review of key Uruguay Round agreements such as agriculture and textiles, in an attempt to provide coherence and political relevance to the two meetings.

3. Approach: The current approach to both meetings is a very uncritical one. This is exemplified by the agenda of both meetings, and the only other preparatory document we are aware of, the European Commission’s note (113 Committee, MD 649/98, 18.12.98) which focuses exclusively on the positive synergies between trade liberalisation and sustainable development. Our view is that both meetings would be more successful if they took a more open-minded approach to the subject. It is possible that under certain circumstances, trade liberalisation and sustainable development can be mutually supportive; under other circumstances however, there can be clear conflicts between trade liberalisation and different environmental, developmental, social and gender policy objectives.

Action needed: The meetings must recognise these very real conflicts and concerns, and focus on how trade liberalisation could become a tool for the accomplishment of these broader goals rather than an end in itself.

4. Participation: We are concerned at the current lack of balance in both the list of suggested speakers for the two meetings and the expected participants, and urge action in three key areas here:

(i) List of speakers: Both speakers lists for the two meetings must reflect gender balance and have adequate civil society representation. Towards this, some of us have recommended individuals for consideration by the WTO Secretariat.

(ii) Governmental representation: We call for the full high-level involvement of government representatives from ministries responsible not only for trade, but also for environmental protection and social development - with adequate support from the WTO in case of financial constraints. In this regard, we expect that both the WTO Secretariat and Geneva-based Member State missions have widely broadcast news of the upcoming high-level meetings to national capitals and are actively seeking the participation of representatives from environment and social development ministries, as well as all relevant UN bodies and multilateral organisations.

(iii) Civil Society representation: We call for the involvement of civil society organisations from developing countries and countries in transition. We believe this to be crucial to bringing a non-governmental, public interest perspective to the discussion. Such a perspective is often essential in connecting the rhetoric of debating fora to the reality of poor peoples lives and their real development needs. This participation cannot be take for granted, however, given often significant financial constraints faced by small NGOs. We would, therefore, greatly welcome any initiative on the part of the WTO and Member States to help support the attendance of representatives from the poorest developing countries and countries in transition.

5. Action-orientation: At present the High-Level Symposia are focussed more on dialogue than on results. While we believe that dialogue is invaluable, the Symposia must also have a clear action agenda if they are not to become mere ‘talking shops’. We hope that a focus on results will also motivate Member States to make imaginative proposals to break the deadlock on trade, environment and development issues. Some areas for action are offered below:

The undersigned groups share a common concern with the pace and scope of trade liberalisation and the role of the WTO. We believe that there should be no precipitous advancement of the trade liberalisation agenda unless three key prerequisites have been attended to:

  • adequate implementation of existing obligations under the Uruguay Round agreements;
  • full assessment of the impact of the Uruguay Round agreements, and any future negotiations, on poverty, inequality, environment, development, gender, human rights and labour standards (see detailed civil society letter to the European Commission on this); and
  • corresponding strengthening of the enforcement machinery of international agreements, and relevant UN bodies, on human rights, environment, social development, labour standards, gender equality and other societal objectives to provide a counterweight to the legally-binding enforcement mechanisms of the WTO.

We also believe that the WTO is in urgent need of systemic reform such that it can live up to its oft-claimed objectives of sustainable development and bringing benefits through the global trading system to the poorest nations and peoples. Key areas of reform include:

  • limiting the coverage of the WTO such that its executive competence remains bounded to trade-related matters, with decisions on non-trade matters delegated to the appropriate, and adequately empowered, multilateral bodies to ensure consistency of trade policies with other international agreed social and environmental objectives;
  • accountability of the WTO both internally to its membership, and externally to civil society, existing international legal norms and standards and the multilateral system at large;
  • transparency and participation at both the WTO and Member State level such that there is informed and democratic decision-making at all levels;
  • financial, technical and legal assistance to all countries, especially the least developed, who are unable to fully participate in the global trading system or are discriminated against due to structural weaknesses;
  • flexibility and effective implementation of the ‘special and differential treatment’ provisions of the WTO trade agreements in favour of poorer Member States;
  • mainstreaming of issues such as environment, gender, social, development, labour and human rights through internal multidisciplinary expertise development and externally through co-ordination with relevant UN and other international bodies; and
  • periodic assessments of trade agreements, as required by the WTO’s own mandate and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, before embarking on further trade liberalisation or the adoption of new issues.

Our hope is that by addressing the concerns raised above, the WTO and its Member States can more proactively ensure the success of the two High-Level Symposia and reflect on the broader concerns regarding trade liberalisation and the role of the WTO. Such opportunities are seldom and, coming as they do in a significant year for the WTO and at a time of growing backlash to the trade liberalisation agenda, we look for strong political leadership in responding to the challenges confronting the global trading system to ensure that trade is made into a tool for sustainable and equitable development, not an end in itself.


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