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11-year quest drawing to close

By Laufaleaina Lesa APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Dec. 15, 2009) – Eleven years after it applied for membership, Samoa is nearing the final stages of becoming a member of the world’s premier trade group, the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

In fact, if everything goes according to plan, Samoa could become a member of the WTO before the end of 2010.

In a statement, the government said an early conclusion for Samoa’s WTO accession could be pushed forward at the seventh session of the WTO Ministerial Conference, scheduled for November 30-December 2, 2009 in Geneva.

"It has been highlighted that Samoa’s graduation to become a member of the WTO is much awaited by the member countries and the WTO-Geneva headquarters," said the statement from the Government.

While multilateral negotiations are still being carried out on Samoa’s trade policy regime, it has already concluded bilateral negotiations with China, New Zealand, Honduras and Australia.

Bilateral negotiations with the US, Japan, European Union and Ukraine are still ongoing.

It has been a long road for Samoa towards WTO acceptance, arriving at where it is today. Along the way, it had to endure and overcome a number of obstacles.

One of the major challenges Samoa faced was the lack of capacity to deal with complex WTO issues, according to Samoa’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

The ministry is at the forefront of the various strategic efforts to ensure that Samoa achieves WTO membership. These efforts include trade negotiations at international and regional level.

Another critical stumbling block was the limited resources to enable more participation of engagement in negotiations. Carrying out extensive consultations with Samoan stakeholders on a continuous basis also proved challenging.

So was the staunch opposition from various local groups, organisations and individuals against the move to be admitted into the WTO. But that has done little to prevent the WTO admission process from taking place.

"Whether we become a member of the WTO or not, trade policies and decisions at the global level are and will continue to be affected by the rules of WTO," said MFAT.

The Government Press Secretariat said the accession process follows a two-track approach to multilateral and bilateral negotiations. The multilateral negotiations deal with national policies relating to Samoa’s trade regime include liquor licensing, VAGST exemption of primary producers, turkey tail ban, the ban on import of cars older than 12 years, and Intellectual Property.

Bilateral negotiations with other countries are yet to be completed.

Samoa’s application for WTO membership in 1998 was in line with government reforms of the late 1990s and complemented its forward-looking economic policy decisions.

The application was also on the premise that WTO membership will improve Samoa’s capacity within the multilateral trading system.

"The main aim of WTO is to provide a forum for trade negotiations through the administration of WTO agreements; monitoring national trade policy; co-operating with other international organ

isations; providing technical assistance; and training for developing countries," said MFAT.

And Samoa wanted to capitalise on and take advantage of these opportunities.

Other perceived benefits of WTO membership that Samoa found attractive include non-trade discrimination.

"As a small economy, WTO provides a forum for non-discriminatory trade rules and these rules apply across the board to bigger developed trading economies and smaller LDC countries alike.

This is also particularly important for trade with other Pacific Islands which are WTO members (Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands & Tonga), in that they would treat all WTO members no less favourable than other members," said MFAT.

The ministry believes that Samoa, along with other Pacific Islands Countries (PICs), face trade restrictions from developed markets on certain products without justifiable reasons.

It also advocates that being a member of WTO, it will improve Samoa’s capacity to find overseas markets for its local exports.

"With our graduation as an LDC looming, further erosion of preferences will have a big impact on the access of our products in overseas markets", the Ministry stated.

"The WTO dispute settlement mechanism gives Samoa a platform to address any discriminatory trade practices that will have a negative impact on our trade.

"Although the costs to government would be substantial, the accrued benefits of gaining improved market access and transparent procedures are vital for future trading".

It is also expected that an improvement in trade-related legislation and regulations will result from Samoa being a member of WTO.

"Samoa has a relatively outdated trade-related legislation and the absence of relevant laws to govern trade, especially in the face of a global trading environment," said MFAT.

A review of Samoa’s trade related legislation for WTO compatibility and to suit the changing international business environment has been undertaken.

"Having updated legislations that are in line with WTO Agreements would also allow governments to be transparent in terms of procedures and implementation of such policies".

Another major contributing factor to Samoa’s application for WTO membership was the need for improved standards for local products.

"Samoa does not have mandatory food standards. Our preparation for WTO membership has reaffirmed the need to have legislation updated and basic standards imposed on all products, according to internationally recognised standards.

"This would also allow local processors to improve the standards of locally produced goods, which could be exported to overseas markets.

"Although each country is free to harmonise their food standards even if they are not WTO members, the real problem is having the resources to undertake such changes," said MFAT.

The access to technical assistance that WTO membership promises is another main attraction.

"Especially (Samoa) being a least developed country. This is assistance not only from the WTO but other donor agencies mainly towards capacity building for both government and private sector officials, improved access to international trade information and assistance in updating trade related legislation and policies," according to MFAT.

Meanwhile, Samoa is continuing negotiations and consultations with relevant local, regional and international stakeholders as part of its final preparations towards WTO membership.

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