The move follows a 17-18 March 2010 decision to accept three regional organisations from the continent as observers in the WTO committee dealing with these issues.
The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Committee also tentatively agreed on a report concluding its third review of how the SPS Agreement is working. The report, originally due out at the end of 2009, will be formally approved if no one raises further objections by 15 April. (When confirmed, this is expected to be document G/SPS/53.) The report reviews the past four years and identifies areas for the committee’s future work.
The committee continued to discuss private sector standards, with some members calling for a clearer interpretation of the relationship between these and the SPS Agreement — whose focus is on government standards.
And with specific trade concerns raised in the committee since 1995 now approaching 300, members continued to comment on each others’ measures, including regular topics such as avian influenza, mad cow disease (BSE) and the H1N1 virus.
The new observers are the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), Community of the Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and Southern African Development Community (SADC). Like some other observers in the SPS Committee, they will be “ad hoc” — invited meeting by meeting, starting in June — a solution devised because the membership is still deliberating a common approach for observers across all WTO subjects.
Regional organizations that are already observers in the SPS Committee are: Organismo Internacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (OIRSA), which works among some Latin American countries, and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Latin American Economic System (SELA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
A number of African countries said they were keen for their three organizations to become observers because the three help countries improve their ability to meet international standards and therefore to export to international markets. Some delegations find it difficult to attend all meetings and therefore the regional observers will also help them keep track of work in the WTO.
And, making these organisations observers also ties in with technical assistance they receive from some developed countries on sanitary and phytosanitary issues.
One of the SPS Committee’s most important functions is to provide an opportunity for members to raise concerns they have about each others’ SPS measures. This is the SPS Committee’s bread-and-butter work in overseeing the agreement’s implementation.
The latest summary of specific trade concerns was presented to this meeting. It says 290 issues were raised from 1995, when the WTO was set up, until the end of last year (2009). This contrasts with 36 formal legal disputes citing the SPS Agreement out of more than 400 formal legal disputes across all subjects brought to the WTO in the same period.
Although a number of concerns raised in the SPS Committee are not potential legal disputes, the committee’s discussions are partly seen as a way of avoiding litigation.
The peak year for new cases was 2002, when 42 were first raised in the committee, but the number has stayed below 20 since 2006, with 13 new issues in 2009.
The largest number of cases (40%) are about animal health and among these mad cow disease (BSE), foot and mouth disease, and avian influenza account for over two thirds of issues.
Altogether, 79 cases have solutions reported, 18 have partial solutions reported, and 193 are on-going (or are resolved without being reported to the WTO).
The report shows that developing countries have been active in raising concerns, asking or joining others in asking around half of the issues raised (146.)