If India were to truly protect the interest of developing countries and the foundation of a consensus-based multilateral WTO, it cannot allow developed countries-led ‘joint statement initiatives’ on issues such as investment, MSME, e-commerce and gender, endorsed by select members, to come into the WTO fold and get legitimacy, Jayant Dasgupta, former Indian Ambassador to the WTO has said. 

In an interview with businessline, Dasgupta outlined what India has to watch out for at the forthcoming 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi next week. Excerpts:


In the agenda emerging for the WTO MC13, it seems that developing country issues, such as a permanent solution for public stockholding, is receding to the background, while matters being pushed by the developed world, such as investment facilitation, are gaining weight. Why is that being allowed to happen?

Developed countries, such as the US, the EU and Canada, were the ones that set up the GATT, which transformed into the WTO. They have always had a say in its agenda to a large extent. Even in the case of the Doha Round, when it was negotiated, there were many implementation issues (related to developing country interests) of the previous Uruguay Round that were left over. They (developed members) had promised during the Uruguay Round that after the document is signed, the implementation issues will be taken care of. But they forgot all those promises.  So in 2001, when there was no reason to have a new round, the ostensible reason shown for one was the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre and the need to show solidarity. When they realised it was not enough to convince all, they introduced the word development. So it became the Doha Development Round without any serious intent to address outstanding issues of developing countries. They have been doing this for quite long and continue to do so.


But now attempts are on to bring new issues into the agenda where no consensus has emerged between members. How should India react?

In WTO Ministerial Conference at Buenos Aires in 2017, the developed countries realised they could not find a mandate on new issues of their choice, which included investment facilitation, domestic services regulations disciplines, MSME and electronic commerce. So they went out of the Ministerial and came up with these joint statement initiatives (JSI) and decided to negotiate it outside the WTO. Now if you want to preserve the architecture of the WTO, which is multilateral and consensus-based, then you have to get a mandate from the Ministers. And if you are a proponent of a certain issue then you have to convince the non-believers , agnostics to your view of thinking and get a consensus. 


The WTO DG and the WTO Secretariat seem to be supporting the new issues though. What kind of a precedence will it set?

The WTO DG at the the time of the Buenos Aires MC, Roberto Azevedo, and also the present DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, have associated the WTO Secretariat with some of these JSIs, trying to give it legitimacy. If India were to truly protect the interest of the developing countries and the basic foundation of the WTO, that it is a consensus-based multilateral organisation meant for multilateral agreements, then it cannot allow a JSI, which was without a ministerial mandate, to come into the WTO fold. The US has not joined the JSI but watching very keenly from the side. If you were to allow it, it will change the very character of the WTO. In future, they (US and other rich nations) will table agenda item of their choice. They will say if you don’t want to join, don’t join. It will become a plurilateral organisation serving the interests of the developed countries and perhaps a  few developing ones.


How does one then look at the proposed Investment Facilitation for Development pact, which is being pushed for the WTO MC13, as it is still not a consensus-based item, although it is supported by 130 members?

There are several reasons for being very careful with it. Firstly, it should adhere to the process that is laid down in the Marrakesh Agreement. You have to get a ministerial mandate for the negotiation. It can’t be parachuted at the Ministerial for inclusion as an Annex 4 (plurilateral) agreement at the WTO. Secondly, at the WTO Doha Round of 2001, it was agreed that the Singapore issues, which includes investment, would not be negotiated till there was explicit consensus on it, till the round is over. The round is not over. The mandate still stands. The third thing is that the Marrakesh agreement speaks of multilateral trade relations. It does not speak of investment.


What do you think will happen to India’s long-standing demand for a permanent solution to the problem of public stockholding for food security may not be met at the MC13?

They are just trying to defer the whole decision till the next ministerial, as has been happening from 2013 onwards. As India and a group of developing countries are the proponents, the onus has been on them to convene meetings to settle the matter. Then the other side, mainly the Cairns group and the US, don’t participate in the meetings. Then what happens...there is no progress. That is exactly what has been happening since 2014.


So what does India do to ensure some movement?

India, and the rest of the developing countries who have a stake in it, have to continue their efforts. They also have to persuade the other side, because in the multilateral system you have to convince the other side or be, convinced yourself. India can’t give up its efforts.

As India and a group of developing countries are the proponents, the onus has been on them to convene meetings to settle the matter.Jayant Dasgupta, Former Indian Ambassador to the WTO