Special and Differential Treatment: Ensuring Flexibilities for Developing Countries

28 November 2013

Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) has long been considered a crucial part of the Doha Round’s development dimension. Originally created as an overarching mechanism to give preferential treatment to developing and least developed countries (LDCs), the measure aimed to help these countries more easily integrate into the multilateral trading system. To this end, paragraph 44 of the Doha Ministerial Declaration granted a mandate to review all S&DT provisions with a view to making them stronger, more precise, effective, and operational. At the Geneva Ministerial Conference in 2011, ministers agreed to expedite work towards finalising a “Monitoring Mechanism” to provide regular reviews of existing S&DT provisions.

Cancún proposals

In 2003, members managed to agree in principle on a group of 28 S&DT proposals, out of an original 88, in time for the Cancún ministerial. However, when ministers failed to reach a deal on the package, the 28 proposals were relegated to the “waiting room.”

Negotiators revisited the S&DT subject two years later in Hong Kong, and then again at the 2011 Ministerial Conference in Geneva, when ministers requested a special negotiating session of the Committee on Trade and Development (CTD-SS) to “take stock” of the dormant package, with a view to formal adoption.

Despite having previously been considered as a possible deliverable for Bali, the proposals were dropped from this year’s proposed “package” earlier this autumn, with sources faulting the complexities that emerged in revisiting the decade-old proposals.

Monitoring Mechanism

One development-focused subject that has seen notable advances ahead of Bali involves the Monitoring Mechanism, which aims to review the functioning of provisions in multilateral trade rules for S&DT for developing countries.

Negotiations on the mechanism date back to a July 2002 decision by the General Council endorsing an African Group proposal on the subject, which also directed the Committee on Trade and Development Special Session (CTD-SS) to establish terms for how it would work. The talks then languished for years as the Mechanism was linked to calls by some developed countries for “differentiation” among non-LDC developing countries - a famously controversial issue in WTO politics.

In the months leading up to this year’s Bali ministerial, members were divided over how to best balance developed countries’ aim of avoiding the creation of a permanent negotiating forum versus developing countries’ desire for something beyond a transparency exercise.

However, members were able to reach a tentative resolution in November, with the current draft text indicating that the Mechanism will serve as a focal point within the WTO to analyse and review all aspects of implementation of S&DT provisions. In cases where the review identifies a problem, the Mechanism may make recommendations, including, if necessary, for launching of negotiations, to the relevant WTO body.

Recommendations emerging from the Mechanism, according to the draft text, would inform the work of the relevant body, but not define or limit its final determination. If approved, the Mechanism would operate in dedicated sessions of the Committee on Trade and Development (CTD) and meet twice a year, though additional meetings could be convened as appropriate. The status of recommendations emerging from the Mechanism would then be included in the annual report of the CTD to the General Council. According to the text, the Mechanism would be reviewed three years after its first formal meeting.

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