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GENEVA--The heads of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations Environment Program have issued a joint call for improved cooperation between the two bodies, including the establishment of an "early warning mechanism" to head off disputes involving conflicting obligations under multilateral trade and environment agreements.

WTO Director General Mike Moore said Oct. 24 that discussions between trade and environment officials on pursuing shared goals and reducing potential tensions between their respective rules and institutions represented a "constructive step" in resolving issues at a technical level.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer added it was "extremely important" that officials from both camps come together to avoid problems and develop win-win scenarios. Toepfer said such scenarios could include tackling market distortions that cause environmental damage such as reducing fisheries subsidies or initiating subsidy reductions and reforms in agriculture.

Moore and Toepfer spoke after a UNEP meeting on enhancing synergies and mutual supportiveness of global environmental agreements and the WTO, which was held at the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva Oct. 23. The meeting was followed by a two-day gathering of the WTO's committee on trade and environment Oct. 24-25.

Enhanced Coordination of National Ministries

In addition to the need for win-win scenarios, Toepfer said that some of the key ideas arising from the UNEP seminar included the need to enhance coordination between trade and environment ministries at the national level and to allow UNEP and the WTO to provide "substantive input" in each other's work and workshops. Toepfer also called for an analysis of trade-related environmental measures that would help determine which trade measures work and which do not.

Toepfer also said that trade and environment officials agreed on the need for UNEP and the secretariats of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) to deal with noncompliance issues as well as the need for both UNEP and the WTO to assess the environmental impacts of trade liberalization. On the latter point Toepfer said that UNEP was already undertaking impact studies in Argentina, China, Ecuador, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania.

Potential Conflicts Between MEAs, Trade Pacts

Moore noted that no disputes involving potential conflicts between environment and trade agreements have ever been brought to the WTO for resolution. However, WTO members such as the European Union have recently expressed concern that such disputes may arise in the future and be brought before a WTO dispute settlement panel.

A particular concern is that countries that are not parties to global environmental agreements such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer or the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal may challenge trade-restrictive provisions imposed by governments under these agreements as being in violation of WTO free trade rules (INER Reference File 1, 21:3151 and 21:3701).

The WTO has already earned the enmity of environmental groups for dispute settlement rulings against U.S. restrictions on polluting imported gasoline and the EU's ban on hormone-treated beef. The WTO has also come under attack for its ruling against a U.S. ban on shrimp imports from countries without adequate conservation policies for the protection of sea turtles, even though legal experts point out that the organization has acknowledged the U.S. right to impose such a ban while faulting its administration.

Most recently a WTO panel ruled that France had the right to impose a ban on imports of chrysotile asbestos for public health reasons, although environmental groups criticized the panel for clearing the ban only after first finding that it violated a basic WTO principle on fair treatment of imported products. The panel ruling has been appealed, with a decision expected early next year (23 INER 760, 9/27/00).

Toepfer Touts Early Warning System

Toepfer said that while he did not agree that WTO panels have gone too far in favoring trade concerns in trade and environment disputes, such issues were best resolved within the context of environmental agreements. "The shrimp-turtle case is not a good example for solving problems," he said. "It is a question for the environmental family as to what we have to do in environmental agreements to avoid such cases."

"I'm a little bit afraid that people have other concerns with regards to globalization and trade, but I sincerely hope we can make this early warning system on possible tensions and conflicts between trade and the environment get working as soon as possible," he added.

Toepfer earlier told the WTO's trade and environment committee that the controversial dispute settlement rulings as well as the trade body's disastrous Seattle ministerial in late 1999, where environmental groups played a key role in the demonstrations that disrupted the meeting, "show the dangers of too many expectations being loaded onto one institution to solve all the problems related to trade, environment, and development."

By Daniel Pruzin

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