Geneva Delegates Exploring Options on Export Bans
Last week, agriculture ministers from the Group of 20 (G-20) leading economies called for a ban on those export restrictions that interfere with the ability of humanitarian relief agencies to provide food in times of crisis. Geneva-based representatives are now exploring how to accomplish the ban by the December 2011 WTO Ministerial Conference.
WTO experts and Geneva trade delegates note that the legal mechanisms for creating binding rules do exist outside of the trade negotiating mandate of the Doha Round. Provisions in the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO allow biannual ministerial conferences and the WTO General Council, in interim periods, to waive or amend existing trade rules.
According to a WTO legal expert, these waivers apply to certain aspects of the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) as well as elements of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.
Sources participating in the G-20 deliberations saw a ban on export restrictions affecting humanitarian relief efforts as a lowest common denominator approach for the group. Russia and Argentina are two G-20 countries that have used such measures in recent years. A report from international organisations advising the G-20 had cited the role of export bans in driving food price volatility and encouraged the group to act.
Earlier this year, Net Food Importing Developing countries (NFIDCs) proposed a ban on export restrictions that affected their ability to import food. The proposal allowed NFIDCs to employ bans on food exports, while prohibiting others from doing so when trading with NFIDCs.
LDC-plus package considered
A developing country trade official close to the proposal suggested that some countries are considering pressing the matter either alongside or as a part of an "LDC-plus" package at the WTO Ministerial in December (see Bridges Weekly, 22 June 2011).
At the 22 June meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), the WTO's highest negotiating body, Ambassador Hisham Badr of Egypt emphasised that "conditionalities" for least developed country (LDC) recipients should not be a part of a December deal. New disciplines on export restrictions are likely to require compromise and some members may not be in favour of providing concessions on issues they see as vital. Egypt is a leading proponent of the NFIDC proposal.
To implement the G-20's Agriculture Ministerial Declaration, procedurally, a WTO member would need to raise the issue at the General Council or appropriate subsidiary body in order to ensure its inclusion in a decision at December's WTO Ministerial, a WTO official suggested. No such request has been publicly made to date.
Many members are currently considering how to press ahead with trade rule-making in the absence of a concrete outcome from the embattled Doha process. Ensuring that humanitarian relief efforts have access to food may be an important test of how the WTO may move forward.
For more on the G-20 meeting of agriculture ministers, see the lead story in this week's issue.