TRIPS in Seattle: The Not-so-Surprising Failure and the Future of the TRIPS Agenda
12 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2011
Date Written: 2000
Government trade ministers arrived at that the WTO Seattle Ministerial Conference in late November 1999 without preliminary agreement on the future course of multilateral trade negotiations, and they departed without reaching consensus on a new WTO agenda. There was ample warning that the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle would face serious difficulties, with or without the public protests that disrupted the meeting. Only a few months before, WTO Members had completed the selection of a new Director-General – in fact the selection of two new Director-Generals to serve sequentially – in a tortuous process that lasted nearly a year. The Seattle agenda included a host of divisive issues involving serious substantive differences that Members had been unable to resolve in months of pre-meeting negotiations. Beyond hope in some quarters that pressure to maintain “momentum” would cause Members to abandon or compromise strongly held views, it is not clear why the Seattle Ministerial might have been approached with optimism about a comprehensive result.
The failure to reach consensus on a WTO negotiating agenda in Seattle left considerable unfinished business on the table. In a number of areas, such as agriculture, existing WTO texts prescribed that negotiations would be resumed. Since the ministerial, the WTO General Council has agreed to move forward with negotiations in agriculture and services, at least to the extent of seeking to clarify the subject matter to be pursued. There has been no agreement on a future agenda for negotiations regarding trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (or TRIPS), although a number of “built-in” agenda items remain before the TRIPS Council. The lack of agreement on a “new” TRIPS agenda is not surprising in view of the wide gulf in perspectives on this subject among WTO Members.
This essay seeks to explain the absence of consensus on TRIPS, and why the near-to-medium term prospects for the setting of an ambitious agenda are not too bright. It reflects in modest detail on the particular controversy surrounding the potential for non-violation nullification or impairment complaints to be brought in the TRIPS dispute settlement context. This essay suggests that WTO Members might be best served in the near term by concentrating their efforts on establishing improved multilateral mechanisms to aid in the transfer of information and technology to developing and newly-industrialized countries.
Keywords: TRIPS, Seattle Ministerial, WTO, agenda
JEL Classification: K33, O34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation