WTO members should consider overhauling the way they hold negotiations in the body that sets the rules of global commerce, a panel of leading experts said on Monday.
The study, commissioned by WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi, also raised concerns that a proliferation of regional trading blocs -- including the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the EU and South America's Mercosur -- is undermining progress on a far-reaching global trade liberalization accord.
Supachai commissioned the report, titled The Future of the WTO, in 2003. The eight-member independent panel that wrote it was led by Peter Sutherland, first head of the WTO when it was created in 1995 out of the looser General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT.
The panel, which included former Brazilian foreign minister Celso Lafer, was composed largely of key academics from different countries, ranging from Ghana to the US.
"This new organization became a symbol of the emergence of a more global economic system," drawing criticism and praise alike, Supachai wrote in his introduction to the 86-page study. The 148-nation WTO is at a crucial stage in its short history, Supachai noted.
The past decade was marked by the high-profile collapse of its ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999 and the start of sometimes violent street protests against the WTO by the burgeoning anti-globalization movement.
The failure in Seattle was followed by a successful accord on launching global trade liberalization talks at Doha, Qatar, in 2001. But member governments were unable to spur those talks two years later at a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, largely because of clashes over farm trade concession between rich and poor nations.
While governments last year managed to agree on a framework for further talks, progress has still been limited -- and negotiators are hoping to have a workable deal on the table in time for a summit in Hong Kong in December.
"On a day-to-day basis, the WTO has become too much of a talking shop," the study said.
WTO members currently make decisions by consensus -- in theory giving the biggest, richest and the smallest, poorest members the same power. But the report said the consensus approach is overused, even in purely procedural parts of talks.
The report urged WTO's ruling General Council to adapt the rules so that "a member blocking a measure which otherwise has very broad consensus support shall only block such consensus if it declares in writing, with reasons included, that the matter is one of vital national interest to it."
Frustration over slow progress in WTO talks has also spurred the growth of regional trade blocs, the report said.
While advances within such groupings can later help generate momentum in global talks, the blocs also have created a complex "spaghetti bowl" of competing interests and undermine faith in the WTO as a venue for trade deals.
The report said WTO members should consider allowing ``variable geometry,'' where groups of like-minded countries could hold talks under the WTO banner while other members chose to stay out. That would let "the willing move forward," it said.
However, the report noted the risks, saying: "The approach should not permit small groups of members to bring into the WTO issues which are strongly and consistently opposed by substantial sections of the rest of the membership."