India, South Africa and Namibia have jointly voiced concerns on the plurilateral talks on e-commerce, investment facilitation, services domestic regulation and MSMEs, gathering pace at the WTO, despite many developing country members staying out of it.

In a recent paper submitted to the General Council of the WTO, the countries argued that new rules cannot be introduced without fulfilling the multilateral body’s mandate of reaching an agreement by consensus.

The submission is especially relevant as the proponents of the plurilateral talks, called the joint statement initiative, or JSI, are trying to look for an outcome at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC 12), which may take place in June.

“...we are not questioning the right of members to meet and discuss any issue. What we are saying is that when such discussions turn into negotiations and their outcomes are to be brought into the WTO rule book, the fundamental rules of the WTO must be followed. All members need to follow the foundational rules of the rules-based multilateral system, as enshrined in the Marrakesh Agreement,” said India’s representative in the closing address on the submission.

India has refused to be part of the JSI discussions as it believes that members need to first focus on mandated areas for negotiations, including a permanent solution for food procurement subsidies. “If new areas of discussions are brought into the WTO’s agenda plurilaterally, there will be no interest to sort out pending issues that have a direct bearing on livelihoods of the poor. The agenda will be full of issues that favour the powerful,” a Delhi-based source told BusinessLine.

India, South Africa and Namibia also challenged members, including developed nations, supporting the JSI, asking them to legally disprove their argument that new rules cannot be negotiated and formalised at the forum without consensus building.

“This collective commitment to a common set of rules forms the bedrock of this institution. The crucial nature of this commitment has been reiterated through the years, including by the Appellate Body…,” the paper affirmed.

Marrakesh Agreement

One of the aims of the Marrakesh Agreement was to unravel the fragmented system of rules, which was created by the Tokyo Round’s plurilateral codes. “To return to a system of plurilateral agreements would be contrary to the letter and the spirit which binds members to this institution. It would be a step in the wrong direction,” it added.