The single undertaking provision in the Doha Development Agenda seems to be raising its head again with news reports in Bridges, emanating from Geneva this week, pointing to the slow progress in preparatory work towards making trade facilitation a part of the overall World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements.
Reports state that the African and least developed country members are of the view that the trade facilitation measures that were agreed at the Bali Ministerial conference in December 2013, should be implemented only on a "provisional" basis pending the conclusion of the Doha Round of negotiations, which has several other issues pending.
The conclusion of a trade facilitation agreement at Bali was declared a major victory by member countries of WTO, with several academic institutions stating that the gains from the deal could be as high as $1 trillion for the world economy. The agreement, in its bid to keep the least developed countries happy, had also stated these countries would be given longer time periods for implementing some of the provisions within the agreement.
However, the African group, according to the reports, has now said the Doha Development Agenda calls for balance within the negotiations and, therefore, the early harvest of trade facilitation should be kept provisional till the round is completed.
Para 47 of the Doha Agenda, that has been used by the African countries to seek the provisional implementation, says: "with the exception of the improvements and clarifications of the Dispute Settlement Understanding, the conduct, conclusion and entry into force of the outcome of the negotiations shall be treated as parts of a single undertaking. However, agreements reached at an early stage may be implemented on a provisional or a definitive basis. Early agreements shall be taken into account in assessing the overall balance of the negotiations."
The move by the African and least developed countries is sure to raise the debate in Geneva since the Bali agreement had tried to placate these countries by using a somewhat different approach to the flexibilities available under WTO.
Special and differential treatment in most WTO agreements focuses on transition periods. The trade facilitation agreement that was agreed to in Bali, keeps the flexibility alive and at the same time also keeps developing and least developed countries out of any obligation to implement aspects of a trade facilitation agreement when the required support for infrastructure is not forthcoming.
The focus, according to WTO documents, is to be based on the individual situation of each and every country. "In other words, a tailor-made, rather than a one-size-fits-all, approach," the WTO document said.
The African approach is based on an issue that has been bothering several developing and least developed countries - the funding needed for building infrastructure that is required for implementing some of the trade facilitation measures mentioned in the agreement. There is a feeling in several countries that without building the required infrastructure, the implementation of the agreement would not be as beneficial as justified by its exponents.
However, the source of funds available for the developing and least developed countries for building trade facilitation infrastructure, has remained a grey area in the negotiations and been an issue of debate among many analysts in these countries.
The issues raised by the least developed countries will hopefully put some pressure on the member countries of the WTO to look at some of the contentious issues within the Doha Round that have eluded completion for almost a decade. Many analysts are worried that the outcome of the Bali Ministerial and the implementation of the trade facilitation agreement may slow down the progress in other areas of negotiations.
The current issue raised by the African group may help bring the focus back on the need to conclude all issues under the Doha Round at as early as possible.
The writer is Principal Adviser at APJ-SLG Law Offices