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July/August 2011

A Real Barrier to Trade

Who Develops International Standards?

James ThomasOver the years, there have been attempts to have the World Trade Organization issue a list of bodies that develop “relevant,” or pre-approved, international standards. And over the years, these attempts have been unsuccessful. But the pursuit of this goal has persisted, in spite of its many flaws.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than a recent communication submitted by certain members of the WTO Negotiating Group on Non-Agricultural Market Access.1 Its aim is to name specific standardizing bodies and to deem that any standard developed by these bodies is a relevant international standard within the meaning of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. Of course, its corollary would also be true: standards developed anywhere but within these bodies would not be automatically deemed international standards within the meaning of the TBT Agreement. According to the communication, WTO members would have the right to pass judgment on any other standards body by “taking… reasonable measures” to prove that they comply with WTO guidelines for the development of international standards.

This idea is put forth, time after time, by the same contingent of interests who hope to politically delegitimize any system of international standardization that is not delegate-driven. This time, the idea is simply coming from a new place.

The WTO is dedicated to liberalizing trade, to, in its own words, “help trade flow as freely as possible — so long as there are no undesirable side-effects — because this is important for economic development and well-being.” It works to promote “fair, undistorted competition” and “trade without discrimination.”

ASTM International buys into these ideals wholeheartedly, and rigorously applies the WTO/TBT principles for the development of international standards to its process.2 The suggestion that the WTO endorse a select cadre of bodies is strikingly discordant, considering the mission of the WTO, and considering the care with which the TBT Committee created principles for application without prejudice. The TBT Agreement is nondiscriminatory and the TBT Committee has purposefully eschewed the creation of a list of preferred or “approved” standards bodies. And rightly so.

Imagine what implementation of the NAMA proposal would do. A hierarchy of sanctioned standards bodies would strip all vitality from the global marketplace. The list as proposed would bestow a presumption of conformity on standards that come from only four standards bodies in the world. Think about that. It is hard to imagine a greater technical barrier to trade.

Perhaps the best reason for rejecting this proposal is that it won’t work. A standard’s label on a list is nothing more than an entitlement. It is the content of a standard that matters, and everybody knows it. Right now, at this very moment, more than 6,000 ASTM standards are in use in 80 different countries, enriching lives, making companies as competitive as they can be, helping countries to develop, fostering free trade and sowing the seeds of prosperity. A list will not add or take anything away from this simple truth, nor will it convince people to stop using the standards that have made them successful. No list can diminish the integrity and widespread use of some of the world’s best technology, nor can it elevate technology that is irrelevant or geographically restrictive. And you can’t, as the U.S. government’s position paper states, “put the World Trade Organization in the position of picking winners and losers among non-governmental, private sector bodies that produce standards.”3 That privilege belongs to users, and it’s too late now to take it back.

There are three documents worth reading on this issue. The first is the proposal wherein the details are set out.4 The second is the letter to the U.S. Trade Representative from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Foreign Trade Council and more than a dozen industry trade associations5 calling for rejection of the proposal, and the third is the U.S. government’s proposal to the Negotiating Group on Market Access, which not only rejects the proposal, but makes some interesting suggestions of its own.6 For the record, ASTM International has rejected the idea of a list of any kind and has made its views known to the USTR, to trade negotiators and to standards officials of other countries. But there is no reason to become complacent just because a bad idea has surfaced again and reasonable people have opposed it. The ASTM International staff and many of its members and their industries are watching this issue, as should anyone who values the right to operate freely in the global marketplace and to use the standards that get them there.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

1. The European Union, India, Indonesia, Norway, Switzerland and Thailand.
2. The WTO/TBT principles are 1) openness, 2) transparency, 3) impartiality and consensus, 4) relevance and effectiveness, 5) coherence and 6) the development dimension.
3. “International Standards in Support of Trade and Economic Development: Strengthening the Contribution of the Committee Decision,” WTO Document TN/MA/W/141, dated March 29, 2011.
6. WTO Document TN/MA/W/141, dated March 29, 2011.

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