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Lebanese NGOs criticize trade policy

Friday 7 April 2006, by Webmoudir

Compiled by Daily Star staff Friday, January 13, 2006

Lebanese civil society groups blasted the government’s eagerness to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), warning Lebanon should be more prepared before such a move. "The government’s trade policy is reckless, not based on sound impact assessments," according to Lebanese civil society groups. They are worried that the government’s free-trade agenda will have negative impacts on the economy. The groups have sent a letter to Economy and Trade Minister Sami Haddad criticizing the lack of transparency surrounding trade negotiations which the Lebanese government is holding in preparation for accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The letter was signed by a broad coalition of human rights groups, environmental and development NGOs as well as professional associations. It demands that trade policy be based on sound impact assessments, and calls for the protection of agriculture and local enterprise. The groups want the government to enter into a dialogue involving all stakeholders affected by trade policy. Included among the signatories are Lebanese NGOs Network, Al-Amal Institute for the Disabled, and Lebanese Organization for Human Rights.

According to the NGOs, the agricultural sector as well as small and medium enterprises of many newly acceding countries have experienced severe difficulties after joining the WTO.

"Lebanon stands to lose its food sovereignty along with its small farmers. Unfettered competition from abroad will also damage local companies, leading to rapid de-industrialization, rising unemployment and a growing trade deficit" the group said.

It also warned that the sale of public services will further worsen the situation for poor and unskilled workers, the handicapped, women and children, pushing them deeper into poverty.

The civil society groups urged the government to protect rural livelihoods by exercising its right to re-impose tariffs and quotas on products that are also produced locally. In order to maintain a national industrial base, the recently abolished import taxes should be re-established. Control over water and energy services should remain with the people. Other basic services including education, health and social protection should be excluded from trade liberalization.

The NGOs demand that decisions on negotiation terms, and on whether to join the WTO or any other free-trade agreement, should be based on sound, independent judgment. Comprehensive sustainability impact assessments on agriculture, services and industry must be conducted, and measures should to be taken to counter the adverse effects of liberalization. According to the NGOs, trade policies should safeguard the welfare of all of Lebanese society and especially of the most marginalized. "The aim should not be to liberalize trade but to set trade policies that secure social, economic, and cultural rights for all."

Lebanon was supposed to join the WTO in 2005 but the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the ensuing security incidents coupled with a sharp political crisis have delayed the move.

But many experts say that Lebanon will not be able to join the WTO soon if it does not stamp out or reduce the copy rights violations.

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