by Bliss Blessing
The Director general of the World Trade Organisation Okonjo-Iweala, In her opening remarks to an informal Heads of Delegation meeting on 28 February, 2023 underlined the importance of delivering results at the organisation’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) which will take place in a year’s time.
In her address the DG said “We cannot afford to have an MC13 that does not deliver”
She added “Excellencies, exactly on this day next year, Ministers will be in Abu Dhabi for MC13,” the Director-General told members. “We have less than a year to ensure that the meeting yields meaningful outcomes. Ten months is a short time in WTO negotiations, so we have to step up our efforts, starting now.”
“Despite the impressive results you collectively delivered at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, we have so much more to do,” she continued. “MC12 cannot be seen as the miracle on Lake Geneva. We can only do that by showing that the organization is capable of delivering continuously, especially now that there’s so little faith and belief in multilateral institutions across the world.”
“We need to show that we can deliver ourselves, even as our sister organizations are under pressure to reform and perform,” the DG continued. “So we cannot afford to have an MC13 that does not deliver.”
MC13 is due to take place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, during the week of 26 February 2024.
The chairs for the WTO negotiations on agriculture, fisheries subsidies and development — Ambassador Alparslan Acarsoy of Türkiye, Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson of Iceland and Ambassador Kadra Hassan of Djibouti — provided members with readouts on their consultations and work in their respective areas.
The Director-General noted that in her recent outreach to leaders, ministers and other stakeholders in the Gulf region, the Caribbean and Latin America, one theme that emerged was the need to address the challenges facing the multilateral trading system by delivering new outcomes in the lead up to, and during, MC13.
“It has become a WTO imperative to contribute to solutions to food and energy insecurity, the climate crisis, sustainability issues, pandemic preparedness, economic recovery and persistent developmental challenges,” the DG said.
“The sooner we transition to delivery mode, the better the chances we will have for success,” she continued. “It is encouraging that certain paths forward are beginning to shape up in some areas. I urge all of you to step up your engagement even further.”
On agriculture, the Director-General said food security was a recurrent theme in her discussions with many leaders over the past two weeks.
“The challenge before us is, if we can take a food security lens to this problem, how exactly do we deal with the issues that we’ve always been concerned about so that we do not let them stand in the way of our delivering a food security result for MC13? What are the new approaches that we must take? How do we unpack the longstanding issues that we have so we can clearly see them and deal with them?”
On fisheries subsidies, the Director-General welcomed the acceptance by Switzerland and Singapore of the MC12 Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies and said she was hopeful a “significant number” of additional acceptances would come in soon.
Acceptances from two-thirds of WTO members are needed for the Agreement to come into effect. She also welcomed Japan’s recent donation to the WTO Fisheries Funding Mechanism and underlined to developing countries the importance of accepting the Agreement which is a condition for accessing the Fund.
On development, the Director-General thanked members for actively participating in the focused discussions on the development dimension of the WTO’s reform agenda earlier this month. She noted that development is much broader in scope than the negotiations on special and differential treatment (S&DT) negotiations.
“Given the immense economic and development challenges facing many members, we must deliver in this area even before MC13,” she said, adding that this message was reiterated by many members claiming that adequate attention has not been devoted to the development agenda.
On WTO reform more broadly, the Director-General underlined that it remains of “prime importance” for members who agree on the need for a well-functioning multilateral trading system with the WTO at its core.
“We need to advance work on all WTO functions. Let us ensure that we can report meaningful progress to Ministers at MC13 — one that shows that the WTO is responsive and capable of driving success.”
The Director-General noted the “widespread support” for dispute settlement reform and underlined that the restoration of a functioning mechanism is key to ensure the credibility of the WTO in the eyes of the outside world.
“We need a clear road map and way forward. I want to underscore here that reform does not simply mean resolving the crisis in the Appellate Body. There is more at stake.”
She also called on members to find a solution on the TRIPS waiver extension to diagnostics and therapeutics. “While no longer in the headlines, the pandemic is still with us. Lives remain at stake, and we cannot afford to be complacent. We need to learn the lessons of the past so as not to repeat mistakes in the future. I hope that the proponents and non-proponents can find a mutually acceptable outcome soon, well before MC13,” she said.
Finally, she urged members to work hard on e-commerce, following the mandate of the MC12 Ministerial Decision. “We need to work hard to reach a collective agreement on where the moratorium is going, and to reinvigorate work on the Work Programme based on its mandate and in line with its development dimension,” she stated.