Vol. 5 Num 180 Fri. November 26, 2004  
Front Page

Saarc nations to pursue common stand in WTO

Bangladesh and the six other South Asian countries have agreed to pursue a common stand and strategy in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations including the next ministerial conference to be held in Hong Kong in December next year.

Commerce Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, who had attended the commerce ministers' meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) countries in Islamabad, Pakistan, said the accord was reached with a view to upholding mutual interests in the international trade forum.

The decision also has as its backdrop the debacle of the last WTO ministerial talks in Cancun in 2003 resulting from differences of opinion between developing and developed economies.

"The Saarc countries will now work out their individual strategies and their representatives at the WTO in Geneva will sit together and develop a common outline for the next WTO ministerial," Chowdhury told newsmen on his arrival at Zia International Airport yesterday.

He said the stand would be finalised through political decisions.

The Saarc commerce ministers in the Islamabad meet also decided that four trade and investment promotion agreements will be signed at the 13th Saarc Summit to be held in Dhaka in January.

The agreements would be on mutual administrative assistance for customs matters to end hassles in intra-regional trade, promotion and protection of investment in the region, setting up a Saarc Arbitration Council to resolve trade disputes, and avoidance of double taxation to protect consumers' interests.

An expert committee with representation of all Saarc countries would finalise the modalities of the agreements before the Dhaka summit, the minister added.

On the progress made in South Asia Free Trade Arrangement (Safta), Altaf said joint expert committees are working on four issues and are expected to finalise a framework on these by June next year.

The issues are: Preparing sensitive list of products, technical assistance to the least developed countries (LDCs) in the region, rules of origin and compensation mechanism for the LDCs within the Saarc.

The minister said the expert committees have already held five meetings and it probably would take two more meetings for them to finalise the issues by next June. The Safta comes into effect on January 1, 2006.

Altaf said the Islamabad meet has also discussed the need for striking bilateral FTAs between the member countries to avoid distortions that might emerge in the Safta.

He said India has already signed FTAs with Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, and Pakistan is going to conclude an ongoing FTA negotiation with Sri Lanka shortly, may be within 20 to 30 days.

"We are closely examining the opportunities and problems in bilateral FTA. Bangladesh has already received bilateral FTA offers from countries in the region and outside it, including Malaysia," he said.

During his five-day visit to Pakistan, the commerce minister also met private sector leaders in Karachi and exchanged views on promotion of bilateral trade and investment. He said the Pakistani entrepreneurs expressed interest to visit Bangladesh and invest here.