I am dismayed to read articles in the Matangi that have portrayed Tonga’s entry into the WTO as terrible move for the Tongan people. With all due respect to OXFAM, (who has made it their business to criticize the world’s largest trading organization), Tonga’s entry into the WTO is a milestone for the nation. I say this not only because it gives Tongans the opportunity to export their goods into any of the 150 member countries at the lowest custom rates applied, or because it gives Tongans the right to access foreign service markets through the GATS, (which, if the King lowered internet access rates, could spell millions of dollars for the Tongan people), or because it allows Tongans to address their trade grievances against foreign countries in one of the fairest judicial settings known to man, but most importantly because it gives the Tongan government real power in terms of negotiation with other nations. Lets face it, Tonga is a small country, with a small economy, and therefore carries little leverage when it deals with foreign nations in matters of trade. However, with Tonga’s accession into the WTO, it has suddenly elevated it’s position in trade negotiations to a level that would be impossible to reach on its own.
This is because the WTO operates on a system of consensus. That is, before any measure is adopted as part of the legal system that governs the WTO, all member countries must agree to the measure. Therefore, because Tonga is now a member of the WTO, it has the power to block trade measures, or demand concessions, just like any of the other WTO countries in a manner similar to the veto power bestowed upon the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council . While it would be naive to say that Tonga now carries the same power as the United States, the European Union and Japan have at the international trade table, Tonga can no longer be neglected by the world’s richest countries if they want their trade measures to become part of WTO law.
Aside from the OXFAM article, I have read some well written opinions in the Matangi that question whether Tonga will be able to take advantage of their new position in the WTO, because Tonga lacks persons skilled in the interpretation of WTO law. While it is my personal belief that with time the educated people of Tonga will rise to this challenge, in the mean time there are ways in which the Tongan government can receive legal assistance to assert itself at the WTO. First, the WTO has made a commitment to the developing countries in terms of technical assistance - that is the wealthier member countries will help Tonga pay for competent legal counsel. Secondly, there are many NGOs that are willing to help Tonga afford legal assistance in dealing with the complex trade issues presented by the WTO- (my professor, Frederick Abbott, an expert in international trade law, currently serves such an organization). Finally, there are many young international trade lawyers and students who would be willing to dedicate themselves to deciphering WTO law for the Tongan Government for marginal fees, simply for the experience and the satisfaction of doing a good deed for good people- (Personally, I would jump at the opportunity to serve Tonga in this way).
In conclusion, Tonga’s accession into the WTO is a step in the right direction for a people, who if given a fair opportunity, can compete in the global economy.
If you have any questions, or would like to know more about the WTO feel free to contact me by e-mail.
Tallahassee, Florida, U.S.A.
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