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Lamy Lauds Effectiveness Of WTO's Public Forum

by Jason Gorringe,, London

05 October 2007

World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy told the organization's Annual Public Forum last week, on “How the WTO can Help Harness Globalization?”, that civil society has registered many successes in the WTO.

1,750 participants from across the globe attended the Forum — of itself an indicator of the extent of globalization, said Mr Lamy — adding that the Forum had led to many good results including the 2003 agreement on cheaper medicines for developing countries, and the inclusion of subjects like fisheries subsidies, environmental goods and services, and food aid in the Doha negotiations.

He told participants: “Let me be clear—the WTO is looking for your contribution, it needs you to help shape its agenda”.

The WTO first launched the idea of a Public Forum back in 2001 when it had opened its doors to the public for a dialogue on the issues confronting the world trading system. The first Public Forum was attended by 400 participants.

'This year's forum,' said Mr Lamy, 'was organized through a “bottom-up” or even what I may call a “grass-roots” process. In other words, WTO Members did not dictate the topics or themes that they wished to discuss with civil society, but rather have decided to let civil society itself express its priorities by organizing its sessions and workshops. Having tried this approach in a number of our past Fora now, WTO Members have found that it is precisely this type of approach that allows them to gage societal priorities on trade, and trade-related issues. And, as you can see in the program before you, this bottom-up approach has indeed led to very rich and broad array of issues to be debated over the course of our two days together.

'Very broadly, we have classified the topics that civil society has proposed into four areas: global governance; coherence between the national and international levels of policy-making and between different multilateral institutions; economic growth and the role of trade as a vehicle for development; and, finally, sustainable development.

'What the WTO did not anticipate when it chose this particular model for the organization of its Fora, is a comment that I have now heard from several members of civil society. In having had to organize your own sessions in the WTO Public Fora, the annual forum has turned into a platform for the forging of new alliances amongst different actors on issues of priority concern. Civil society has realized that power can sometimes lie in numbers, and in a pooling of intellectual and other resources. This can be witnessed in today's program, through the large number of “joint” events that you have chosen to organize. I am pleased that you are indeed joining hands to better influence the work of the WTO.'

Mr Lamy summarized some of the results of the past events:

'First is the issue of intellectual property rights and the access to medicines. Thanks in large part to the light which civil society drew to this issue, in August 2003 the WTO reached an agreement on the use of compulsory licenses by developing countries without manufacturing capacity, in order to help them access life-sustaining medicines. This agreement was incorporated as an amendment to the WTO TRIPS Agreement on the eve the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in December 2005. The issue of access to affordable medicines is, needless to say, one of great concern to many developing countries whose health care systems are often overwhelmed by HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

'Some developing countries had viewed the TRIPS Agreement as an impediment to their efforts to combat public health emergencies. They viewed the Agreement as restricting drug availability. In the developed world, on the other hand, pharmaceutical industries viewed the TRIPS Agreement as essential to encouraging innovation by ensuring adequate international compensation to the pharmaceutical sector for its research, development and creativity. In the absence of such compensation, the industry had explained, it could not recoup the high costs of developing new life-saving drugs. The Decision that WTO Members ultimately took to amend the TRIPS Agreement represented an important compromise, allowing developing countries to access key medicines in national emergencies more easily, but without undermining the property rights regime. For the developing world, the issue of compulsory licenses was an important test as to whether the WTO could meet their developmental needs. Due the relentless efforts of civil society — of numerous NGOs — the WTO has certainly lived up to that test.

'But things are changing in the WTO once again as we speak, thanks to the efforts of civil society. I am referring to the Doha Round negotiations on fisheries subsidies. For the longest time, many viewed the WTO architecture on subsidies as static, as not capable of change. But civil society soon came to knock on our doors, drawing our attention to the perilous state of much of the world's fish stock. Its message was clear, the WTO has a vital role to play in protecting the world's fish stock, in saving it from depletion.

'Today, negotiations on fisheries subsidies in the WTO are in full swing and they are being taken extremely seriously. The Membership realizes the magnitude of what is stake were these negotiations to fail. And just in case it would forget, you have placed banners all over Geneva to remind us all of the need to reach an agreement! But civil society, in this particular case, did not stop at awareness raising, it came forward with technical suggestions on how the WTO could craft new disciplines; and in so doing has certainly made a real contribution. In fact, to a number of civil society actors this particular experience served to demonstrate how close collaboration with WTO Members can sometimes be vital to achieving their goals.

There many other stories which I could cite; the successes certainly do not end here. You are all too familiar of course, with the environmental chapter of the Doha Round of trade negotiations. The fact that the nexus between trade and the environment, which had been debated for many years in both GATT and WTO, was finally elevated to a “negotiating” stage is also in large part due to civil society. It is vital that the interest that civil society had shown in this area of WTO work now be sustained. This is the first time in the history of the multilateral trading system that an environmental negotiation has been launched. WTO Members must succeed in these negotiations, so that governments are encouraged to address even bigger challenges in future.'

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