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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - WTO deadlines missed

WTO deadlines missed

The government is falling well behind on its schedule to pass World Trade Organization

(WTO) legislation raising worries it may not meet the requirements in time for a

March 10 deadline when the National Assembly must ratify Cambodia's acceptance into

the world body.

Approval for Cambodia's entry into the WTO last September brought a number of self-imposed

deadlines to pass financial and legislative reforms. Those reforms lowering trade

barriers and establishing financial standards, as well as nearly 50 other laws, have

now been significantly delayed by the political deadlock now in its sixth month.

Sok Hach, director of the Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC), pointed out that

even if the government was on track, the schedule was demanding with two pieces of

legislation to be passed each month. By December 2003, Cambodia was scheduled to

have passed 11 laws including rules on intellectual property rights, water resource

management, tourism, biological quarantine and a customs code.

But Hach said missing these deadlines was not as critical as another legislative

schedule to be handed down by a WTO committee later this year. Still, he said the

backlog was a cause for concern.

"The time to implement the WTO agreements is increasingly short," Hach

said. "Cambodia has to pass the laws by 2008 according to the deadline for the

WTO agreement."

But Chhim Narith, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce (MoC), said

was not too late for Cambodia to pass the laws despite missing its initial deadlines.

He hoped the delayed laws could be approved by the end of 2004.

"Cambodia doesn't lose any benefit from being late to ratify the laws by the

deadline because Cambodia is a country that just joined the WTO," he said. "WTO's

committees already know Cambodia is still in a political deadlock."

He said the government would probably negotiate with the trade organization to extend

the deadline. "It's up to WTO's committee to forgive the Cambodia government,"

said Narith.

Cambodia's membership in the WTO is still a controversial topic. Many have criticized

the unfavorable conditions imposed by the WTO including dropping subsidies on agricultural

exports and agreeing to strict intellectual property laws blocking access to affordable

generic HIV/AIDS medication.

Mike Bird, country director for Oxfam-GB, pointed out that Cambodia had given up

more than it needed to as a 'least-developed country' and said these concessions

were regrettable.

"Cambodia comes under huge pressure from large countries, not least America,

and feels it must go where potential supporters prod it to go," he said. "Cambodia

has reduced its room to maneuver."

He said there has been little opportunity to assess the impact of WTO membership

on the poor. "I think there should be a debate on who wins and who loses."

"Cambodia doesn't lose any benefit from being late to ratify the laws by the

deadline because Cambodia is a country that just joined the WTO,"

But WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi said in a press release that Cambodia's

membership agreement proved that WTO member governments were serious about their

commitment to improving the participation of developing and least-developed countries

in global commerce.

Minister of the MoC Cham Prasidh also defended the government's concessions in a

statement posted on the WTO website on September 11, 2003, the day of Cambodia's

acceptance into the world body.

"We managed to secure a package of commitments and concessions we feel was the

most affordable and possible deal for Cambodia's accession, bearing in mind Cambodia's

little political and economic weight and its current reliance on external assistance

from the major donor countries who are also WTO members," he said.

He added in another such statement that "the survival of our country depends

on our ability to capture the right opportunities and at the right time. We believe

the entry to the WTO is such a case."

Certainly, many believe that WTO membership is good for the country. Nuth Nin Doeurn,

secretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism, said joining the WTO would encourage

tourism and other industries to progress more rapidly by having clear laws for foreign


"It can urge Cambodia to uphold the law and to have other laws that other members

of WTO are practicing," Nin Doeurn said.

But Narith said that there was still work to do before Cambodian benefited from WTO

membership. "Cambodia won't get any benefit from joining the WTO if it doesn't

have its own products or factories," Narith said. "Cambodia has to enlarge

its products by installing its own factories to produce a lot of products to export

to other countries."

Sok Siphana, secretary of state at the MoC and chief negotiator for WTO accession,

declined to comment over the holiday season.

Mike Bird said he did not know if the missed deadlines would impact Cambodia's acceptance

by the WTO. However he thought a delay might be a good thing.

"If putting off joining the WTO allows for a better study of how people will

be affected in the long term and allow for proper debate on the pros and cons of

joining, then that must be a good thing," he said.



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