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The Meaning of Doha

by Walden Bello and Anuradha MittalFocus on the Global South and Food First
November 15th, 2001

A banner on the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior. Photo: AP/Kamran Jebreili
A banner on the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior. AP/Kamran Jebreili

The results of the WTO Ministerial in Doha, Qatar, have elicited some confusion among many of those following the events.


A New Round?

Something was launched at Doha, but to call it a "round" of trade negotiations might be stretching the concept of a round. A round means negotiations on a broad range of issues directed at trade liberalization. What was agreed at Doha were: a) negotiations to clarify or revise some existing agreements, e.g., anti-dumping rules; and b) eventual negotiations for new agreements, e.g., transparency in government procurement, investment, and competition policy.

Getting immediate negotiations going on investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation was at the top of the agenda of the trading powers in Doha. They fell short of this objective, being able to secure a commitment for negotiations on these issues only after the fifth ministerial in 2003, and only with a "written consensus" from member countries.


Doha and the Developing Countries

What is clear is that, contrary to the claims of European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, Doha did not launch a "development round." The key points of the Doha Declaration, in fact, contradict the interests of the developing countries. For example:

  • There is only a perfunctory acknowledgement of the need to review implementation issues, which was the key agenda of the developing countries coming into Doha;

  • The language on the phasing out of agricultural subsidies is watered down owing to the strong objections of the European Union; There is no commitment to an early phase-out of textile and garment quotas because of the strong resistance of the United States;

  • The demand for a "development box" to promote food security and development which was being pushed by a number of developing countries was completely ignored;

  • There is no commitment to change the wording of the TRIPs (Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights) agreement to accommodate developing countries' overriding of patents for public health purposes;

  • There is no commitment to change the TRIPs agreement to outlaw biopiracy and patents on life, which was a key developing country concern coming into Doha;

  • The declaration eliminates the reference in the draft to the International Labor Organization (ILO) being the appropriate forum for addressing labor and trade issues, which leaves the door open for the WTO to assert its jurisdiction in an area where it has no authority or competence.

The resolution of the TRIPs and public health issue is being trumpeted as a victory for developing countries. This is exaggerated. While an attachment to the declaration does recognize that there is nothing in TRIPs that would prevent countries from taking measures to promote public health, there is no commitment to change the wording of the TRIPs agreement. This is a serious flaw since TRIPs as it is currently written can serve as the basis for future legal challenges to countries that override patents in the interest of public health.


A Defeat for Democracy and Development

In fact, Doha was a defeat for the developing countries, notwithstanding the resistance they -- and in particular, India -- put up against arm-twisting, blackmail, and intimidation from the big trading powers. Those of us in Doha were witness, as the Equations team puts it, "to the highhanded unethical negotiating practices of the developed countries -- linking aid budgets and trade preferences to the trade positions of developing countries and targeting individual developing country negotiators."

Doha was a victory for the forces with a strong interest in subverting the interests of the developing countries that form the majority of the membership of the World Trade Organization by keeping the decision-making process non-transparent and undemocratic.


Why Doha Will Backfire

This is why this victory may well be a Pyrrhic one for the big trading powers. The combination of developing country resentments inflamed by the Doha process, a deep global recession brought about by the indiscriminate locking together of economies by accelerated trade and financial liberalization, and reinvigorated civil society resistance to corporate driven globalization, cannot but erode the credibility and legitimacy of the institutional pillars of free trade like the WTO.

And without credibility and legitimacy, institutions, no matter how seemingly solid they may seem, eventually unravel.

At the conclusion of the Fourth Ministerial, Director General Mike Moore thanked the delegates for "saving the WTO." The end result may well be, instead, the accelerated decline of the WTO.

CorpWatch's 2001 coverage of the WTO was made possible through the generous support of the Humanitarian Group for Social Development.

Walden Bello is Director of Focus on the Global South based in Bangkok, Thailand. Anuradha Mittal is Director of Food First based in Oakland, California.