Nazmul Ahsan, NewAge, October 6, 2008
The US authorities have scrapped the draft of the trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA) that took shape in lengthy negotiations in a span of two years between Dhaka and Washington, commerce ministry officials have told New Age.
Instead, the United States Trade Representative’s office has recently sent a reworded draft to the commerce ministry for consideration, which indicates that Washington has not lost its interest in concluding the agreement.
The cancellation of the negotiated draft came as a surprise to trade diplomats, who had brainstormed the issue for months earlier and debated phrases and words to be incorporated in the draft to safeguard the country’s image abroad and trade interest with the single largest export market.
The commerce ministry is set to hold a discussion with representatives of other ministries and business community on Wednesday on the fresh TIFA draft.
‘We will now study the new draft thoroughly and finalise our position after consultation with representatives from the public and private sectors before entering into new round of negotiations,’ commerce secretary Firoz Ahmed told New Age on Sunday at his office.
He declined to elaborate on the new draft as the earlier one faced severe criticism both from the private sector and the media for a phrase, ‘bribery and corruption,’ incorporated in the TIFA draft at the insistence of the US administration.
Trade diplomats said the US authorities could have held discussion with their counterparts in Bangladesh before canceling the negotiated draft straightaway and proposing a fresh one unilaterally.
‘They (US) have ignored the minimum requirement of consultation with us before scrapping the negotiated deal,’ a high official in the commerce ministry said. He hinted that the fresh draft might have contained the disputed phrase —bribery and corruption.
The last and third round negotiation on TIFA was held in Dhaka in February 2005, preceded by two other rounds in March 2004 and August 2003.
Betsey Stillman, a senior US trade policy adviser for Asia and Pacific, concluded the third and final round of negotiation, where both the parties agreed to replace ‘bribery and corruption’ with a softer term, ‘prevention of malpractice’, sources said.
‘Desiring to promote transparency and (to eliminate bribery and corruption) in the international trade and investment’ is the clause the US negotiators were insisting on Bangladesh to incorporate in the text during talks at various levels that took place until February 2005.
However, the US trade authority did not approve the negotiated draft and again asked Dhaka in 2006 to incorporate ‘corruption and bribery’ issue in the draft. The then government opted not to proceed further with the issue, commerce ministry officials said.
The United States has concluded TIFA with a number of countries to enhance trade and economic ties with global partners.
On June 1 this year, US trade representative Robert B Zoellick signed a TIFA deal with five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — promising them better trade and investment facilities.
The TIFA operates through a joint council on trade and investment that covers a wide range of issues like intellectual property, labour and environment as well as cooperation in the area of small and medium enterprises.
In Bangladesh, the TIFA was met with both hopes for a better trade future and fears of strict compliance with labour and workplace standards which could hamper the usual exports.