The World Trade Organization on Friday agreed to allow the country of Laos into the WTO, officially inviting the southeast Asian country to become a member in early 2013.
The deal – the Protocol of Accession – was signed after the meeting by Laos' chief negotiator, Industry and Commerce Minister Nam Viyaketh, and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy. Copies will be submitted to the National Assembly in Vientiane.
The next step is for Laos to ratify the membership package and wait 30 days to officially become a member, 15 years after it first applied to join the WTO.
"Laos has come a long way since it embarked on the road to membership in 1997," said WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy. "This is never easy for any least developed country, and Laos' first steps were slow. But it is now seriously reforming its economy and its institutions, and has shown skill in its membership negotiations."
As part of the deal, Laos must follow WTO obligations, including implementing internationally-agreed to standards and providing scientific evidence of risk if the country wishes to restrict imports on the basis of food safety or animal and plant health, for example.
But, Laos' Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said in a country like the Laos, the accession process is not limited to changing some laws and regulations.
"We had to change our way of doing business. Indeed, such a mind change is a difficult and time-consuming exercise. Given the progress we have made, both institutionally, legally and in our mindset, 15 years actually seems a very short time," Thongloun added.
In that period, more than 90 laws and regulations were enacted, including on trading rights, import licensing, customs valuation, investment, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, technical barriers to trade, and intellectual property rights.
The task was not easy but Laos benefited from help and advice from WTO members, Thongloun said. But, "The negotiations at home — which have to lead to a buy-in into the process — are much more important and difficult than the negotiations here in Geneva," he added.
General Council chairperson and Norway ambassador Elin Østebø Johansen said the year has been an important one for WTO countries as far as accessions.
"We welcomed four new Members, Montenegro, Samoa, and more recently, the Russian Federation and Vanuatu," Johansen said. "From a systemic point of view, Laos's entry will also take us a further step towards greater universality in our membership and it is yet another sign of WTO's ability to deliver important results when members work together constructively towards a common objective."
The WTO says other delegations welcomed Laos' membership and applauded Laos' efforts and the collaboration of WTO members. Delegations said the market opening and economic reform accompanying WTO membership, with its principles of transparency, predictability and rules, would help the country develop and make it more attractive for foreign investment. Several of them called for similar flexibility under current guidelines in the membership negotiations of other least developed countries, some referring to Yemen as the next in line to become a member.