In a dramatic last minute decision not to proceed with its entry to the WTO in 2001, Vanuatu highlighted the inequities at the heart of the WTO accession process. Now they want to re-open the accession process. Vanuatu is one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world and it needs a fair process and support from its Pacific neighbours when it comes to negotiations for entry to the World Trade Organisation, says international agency Oxfam.
In its new report, Make Extortion History, Oxfam documents how Vanuatu has been unable to get fair treatment in its ten-year struggle with the process of acceding to the WTO.
Oxfam New Zealand Executive Director, Barry Coates, who is launching the report at a meeting of Pacific non-governmental organisations in Port Moresby today, said "Vanuatu has been through the wringer in this process. As a Least Developed Country (LDC), it is entitled to lenient treatment from the WTO, but so far the opposite has happened. Instead of being offered reasonable terms similar to those enjoyed by other Pacific LDCs like Solomon Islands, it has been faced with demands that in many ways go beyond what even the richest countries have signed up to."
The report has particular relevance for other Pacific nations, since Samoa and Tonga are also facing harsh treatment in their applications for membership. Although Tonga is not an LDC, it faces many of the same issues as Samoa and Vanuatu and the report recommends that it be given the same treatment.
Oxfam hopes that its report will stimulate countries like New Zealand and Australia to rethink their approach to Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga as these Pacific countries proceed with their WTO accession applications. The foundation for such a rethink has been laid by the WTO itself, which made a declaration in 2002 stating that LDCs should be given a streamlined process and terms that take into account what other LDCs signed up to in the past. The decision also asks members to "exercise restraint" in making demands on these countries.
Coates: "Small Pacific countries have much less to gain than most other nations from joining the WTO, due to factors like the wide dispersal of their populations and the great distances to markets. They of all countries should be allowed to try and find ways to use international trade as a means to enhance their development. Instead, they are subjected to intense pressure to open up their economies for the benefit of foreign exporters and multinationals. It is up to New Zealand and Australia to lead the way for the rest of the WTO member countries on this issue, by treating their neighbours and fellow members of the Pacific Island Forum with friendship and respect in these trade negotiations."
Vanuatu’s negotiations have been on hold for several years at its own request, because the deal currently on offer is too damaging to Vanuatu’s interests. Tonga's situation is urgent, as it is already in the final stages of negotiations on an accession deal that is likely to be very costly to implement and damaging to its development prospects. Samoa is currently undergoing a second round of one-on-one talks with countries interested in its accession, including New Zealand. These talks are likely to produce fresh demands on top of a draft deal that is already burdensome.
Oxfam is calling for a complete overhaul of the way the poorest and most vulnerable countries are treated when they apply to join the WTO, including an end to excessive demands, greater transparency in the process, independent advice and assistance with the technical side of the negotiations and the ability to re-negotiate any onerous commitments that have already been included in draft deals.