Worried by the complexity of 30,000 pages of global trade laws, a group of developing countries in the World Trade Organization (WTO) decided three years ago they needed help in standing up for themselves.
They were being confronted with the expertise and resources of fellow WTO members - including the economic superpowers.
"Once you join ... you have to run. If you don't, you'll fall aside. For running, you need to have enough strength," an Indian diplomat said.
The group, led by Columbia, developed a blueprint for a center to give poorer countries advice on handling the legal aspects of their WTO membership.
The international treaty establishing the Advisory Center on WTO Law (ACWL) was signed in December 1999 by ministers at the ill-fated WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle.
"As we are always proud to say, this was the only concrete result of that ministerial conference," said Frieder Roessler, executive director of the Geneva-based ACWL.
Situated a stone's throw from WTO's headquarters, but independent of the global trade body, the ACWL gives legal support and advice - at discount rates or for free - to developing countries, economies-in-transition and least developed countries (LDCs).
The number of trade disputes has exploded in recent years, with high-profile cases now involving millions or even billions of US dollars.
Developing countries, meanwhile, have extended their presence at the WTO, making up four-fifths of its 144 members.
About 97 complaints have been filed against developing countries since the WTO's dispute-settlement body was established.
Sixty-nine complaints have been filed against the United States during the same period. Thirty-five complaints have been laid against the European Commission and 13 against Japan.
India sought ACWL's services when it was hauled by the United States and the European Union before the dispute body over automotive-related complaints.
Those cases began in 1998/99 and lasted until late 2001.
ACWL has been operating since July 2001. The center has swollen to 16 developing members and nine developed members.
Sergio Marchi, ambassador for Canada - one of the centerís members - and chairman of the WTO's ruling general council, said he believed the center "filled an important niche."
"If the independent way of arbitrating is such an important feature of the WTO, which it is, then we also have to make sure its access and affordability is such that all members can take advantage of that so-called jewel in the crown," he said.
Seven full-time lawyers run the center, including Roessler, a former director of legal affairs at WTO's predecessor, the GATT, during the 1986-94 Uruguay Round of trade talks.
(China Daily August 30, 2002)