WTO / Debate over Responsible Consensus


Many developing countries, including the Africa Group and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group, yesterday rejected the proposal on “responsible consensus” floated by Singapore and several countries at the World Trade Organization, said people familiar with the developments.

The United States seemingly adopted an ambivalent position on “consensus”-based decision-making, saying “consensus” is essential. It added that members have the option to block decisions that conflict with vital national interests, said people who took part in the meeting.

At day two of the General Council meeting, the chair of the GC, Ambassador Petter Olberg of Norway, clubbed the two proposals on consensus – one by the ACP group on preserving consensus-based decision-making and the other on responsible consensus by Singapore and seven other countries – to be taken up together, said people familiar with the discussions.

Elaborating its stand, Washington said any member blocking a decision must be willing to engage in discussion, explain their position and provide justification for their decision, said people who asked not to be identified.

Apparently, the United States said members should focus on how to build consensus, while mentioning that during the Uruguay Round of negotiations between 1986 to end-1993 the US Congress instructed their negotiators to preserve consensus, said people who asked not to be quoted.

The US position on consensus at the GC meeting seemingly differed from its earlier stance prior to the WTO’s 13th ministerial conference in Abu Dhabi that members could adopt decisions based on responsible consensus, said people familiar with the discussions.

China suggested that both the ACP’s proposal to preserve consensus-based decision-making and Singapore’s proposal on responsible consensus “are complementary rather than contradictory.”

According to China, “reflections on the practice of decision-making by consensus is very timely, in light of the results of MC13.”

Without mentioning the setback suffered by large number of proponents on Investment Facilitation for Development at MC13,  China said “the inability for decision-making on even the low-hanging fruits harms every member, in particular small members, and undermines the institution itself.”

China also drew attention to voting as mentioned in the Marrakesh Agreement, by suggesting that “when WTO no longer can deliver, due to abuse of consensus, another situation could also happen, i.e. “vote with the feet”.

China said while it values the consensus practice the most, it supports “the idea of responsible consensus, in order to preserve the consensus-based practice, and in the end, to preserve the multilateral trading system, and to benefit all members, especially small ones.”

To preserve consensus-based practices, China said three things are needed. They include “good faith”, “responsibility” and “trust.”

Canada is understood to have said that it is not seeking any amendment to the Marrakesh Agreement to advance responsible consensus, said people familiar with the discussion.

Foundation of Decision Making

Indonesia said the “principle of consensus has long been the primary foundation of decision-making at the WTO” especially for developing countries.

Indeed, with this mechanism, a member, regardless of its size and world trade share, will be equivalent and have equal say, Indonesia said. “This will also ensure the balance and equity of WTO decisions.”

Indonesia expressed doubts “whether it is necessary to have separate GC decision that will most likely re-interpret and even transform the existing consensus principle into the so-called “responsible consensus”.

Further, the draft decision on responsible consensus “may trigger systemic implication to the existing decision-making mechanism as well as its impacts to the legitimacy of WTO decisions,” Indonesia said.

Indonesia said it would “encourage members to show that they are being responsible – in terms of realizing their commitment – including through rebuilding trust among members and take concrete measures that will enable for more progress on key issues based on previous Ministerial mandates.”

On behalf of the African Group, which is co-sponsoring the ACP proposal, Chad said the utility of the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO lies in large part in its core foundational principle of the decision-making by consensus and equal voice for all Members regardless of might or size.

According to Chad, the principle and practice of decision-making by consensus does not only ensure equal rights, but also ensures that all Members, big and small have an equal chance at agenda-setting, including outcomes that are inclusive of their issues of priority, said people familiar with the discussions.

ACP Questions

The African Group, said Chad, is not in a position to support any qualifiers to the foundational principle of the WTO as contained in the proposed draft Decision of on “Responsible Consensus”. It raised several questions such as:

1. What is the added value of a General Council decision on “responsible consensus” and how will it work in practice?

2. How will the General Council Decision enable members to concretely adopt a win-win approach in WTO negotiations?

3. How exactly will the qualifiers introduced in the document, such as “responsible” consensus, “flexibility”, address power dynamics, imbalances in approaches and the prioritization of issues before Members, in particular those of particular interest to developing Members?

4. What is the document trying to address since Article IX of the Marrakech Accord also provides an alternative in the absence of consensus?

The proposal on responsible consensus was co-sponsored by Costa Rica, The Gambia, Korea, Norway, Peru, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan.

The co-sponsors made a strong case for responsible consensus, urging members “to uphold the practice of consensus in a responsible manner in order to ensure that the WTO remains as the cornerstone of the rules-based multilateral trading system, and maintains its relevance by delivering shared prosperity for all its Members.”

Several industrialized countries supported the proposal on responsible consensus, but it failed to attract support and traction, said people who asked not to be quoted.

“Significantly, the rejection of the demand for responsible consensus at the GC meeting almost made the proposed retreat on July 8-9 redundant,” said a person who asked not to be identified.


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