WTO: Consensus Language Contentious

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Several developing countries have vehemently opposed attempts by major industrialized countries to introduce "responsible" or "flexible" consensus into the Abu Dhabi Ministerial Declaration of the World Trade Organization, according to our correspondent.

As the WTO's 13th ministerial conference approaches, members are at odds over decision-making procedures. Canada, a member of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, advocates for "flexible" negotiating approaches, while Singapore insists on "responsible" consensus, among other stances, as reported by individuals familiar with the discussions.

Discussions on the draft Abu Dhabi Ministerial Declaration reveal significant divergence among members regarding proposed changes to the WTO's traditional consensus-based decision-making approach.

It appears that the United States, the European Union, and other industrialized nations, along with certain developing countries, are pushing for a departure from the consensus-based decision-making principles to pursue plurilateral approaches, according to sources familiar with the talks.

During an event in Washington last week, US Trade Envoy Maria Pagan reportedly discussed how the WTO could avoid gridlock by fostering responsible consensus. Ambassador Pagan, as cited in a report titled "Responsible Consensus at the WTO can Save the Global Trading System" on the website of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted the support from important allies like the United Kingdom for collaborative and responsible consensus-building to ensure that the 13th Ministerial Conference builds on the success of the 12th.

Language concerning "flexible" negotiating approaches and "responsible" consensus appears in the draft Abu Dhabi Ministerial Declaration issued by WTO General Council Chair Ambassador Lesiba Athaliah Molokomme of Botswana. The draft includes bracketed language affirming the value of transparent, inclusive, and consensus-based decision-making processes.

While Canada advocates for "flexible" negotiating approaches and Singapore proposes "responsible" consensus, India argues for adhering to Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement, which emphasizes a consensus-based, member-driven process.

In another aspect, members remain divided over the tension between Article 20 of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture and unfulfilled mandates of the WTO Agreements, as reflected in the draft ADMD.

Furthermore, discussions on trade and industrial policy, though not mandated, seem difficult to reconcile at present, according to participants.

On the topic of trade and inclusion, non-mandated issues, key developing countries propose language in the ADMD aimed at fostering an inclusive multilateral trading system and supporting development efforts.

Regarding sustainable agriculture, Brazil introduced language in the draft ADMD calling for dedicated dialogues on sustainable agriculture production, productivity, and trade.

Amidst these discussions, G7 trade ministers stressed the importance of WTO reforms in a virtual meeting attended by WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. They reaffirmed their commitment to pursue reforms to enhance the WTO's functions, including monitoring, negotiating, and dispute settlement.

The G7 countries endorsed a permanent prohibition of customs duties on electronic transmissions or, alternatively, the renewal of the e-commerce moratorium at MC13. They also supported continuing work on electronic commerce under a development-oriented and inclusive framework.