WTO meet ends with decisions on dispute reform, development

WTO meet ends with decisions on dispute reform, development

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WTO meet ends with decisions on dispute reform, development
The World Trade Organization 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi concluded on March 2. Photo from WTO.
  • The World Trade Organization concluded its meeting on March 2 with decisions renewing the commitment to have a dispute settlement system by 2024
  • WTO members also agreed to improve use of the special and differential treatment provisions for developing and least developed countries

The World Trade Organization (WTO) concluded its meeting on March 2 with decisions renewing the commitment to have a dispute settlement system by 2024 and to improve use of the special and differential treatment (S&DT) provisions for developing and least developed countries (LDCs).

At the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi, WTO members adopted the Abu Dhabi Ministerial Declaration, where they committed to preserve and strengthen the ability of the multilateral trading system, with the WTO at its core, to respond to current trade challenges.

Ministers also adopted a Ministerial Decision that responds to a 23-year-old mandate to review S&DT provisions for developing and LDCs with a view to making them more precise, effective and operational. “This is a win for development, one that will help enable developing countries, especially LDCs, fulfil their WTO commitments, exercise their rights and better integrate into global trade,” said WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Members recognized the role and importance of services to the global economy as it generates more than two-thirds of global economic output and accounts for over half of all jobs. They encouraged the relevant WTO bodies to continue their work to review and build on all the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and to build effective solutions in case of future pandemics in an expeditious manner.

In another first, ministers engaged in conversations on how trade relates to two pressing issues that go to the heart of current political, economic and environmental challenges, namely sustainable development and socioeconomic inclusion. Okonjo-Iweala emphasized the recognition by members of “the role trade and the WTO can play in empowering women, expanding opportunities for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs,) and achieving sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental.”

Earlier in the conference, ministers formally approved the WTO membership terms of Comoros and Timor-Leste, the first new members in almost eight years. Members also agreed on a Ministerial Decision on concrete measures to ease the path to graduation from the category of least-developed countries. Additionally, ministers adopted a Ministerial Decision reaffirming the commitment to the Work Programme on Small Economies.

On electronic commerce, ministers adopted a Ministerial Decision instructing the General Council to hold periodic reviews on the E-commerce Work Programme with a view to presenting recommendations for action to the Ministerial Conference. Members also agreed to maintain the current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until the 14th Session of the Ministerial Conference (MC14) or 31 March 2026, whichever is earlier. The moratorium and the Work Programme will expire on that date. Ministers also adopted a Ministerial Decision to extend the moratorium on non-violation and situation complaints regarding the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) until MC14.

Momentum behind the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement continued to pick up pace, with South Africa presenting its instrument of acceptance to Okonjo-Iweala just before the closing of the Conference.

Earlier in the conference, ten WTO members – Brunei Darussalam, Chad, Malaysia, Norway, the Philippines, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Togo, and Türkiye – deposited their instruments of acceptance of the Fisheries Agreement, bringing the total number of WTO members to have formally accepted the Agreement to 71 and putting the historic agreement for ocean sustainability on track for entry into force at a record pace.

“In the second wave of fisheries subsidies negotiations, you narrowed some outstanding gaps, but several more remain,” said DG Okonjo-Iweala. “While I had hoped that we could finish these negotiations in Abu Dhabi, you have prepared the ground for its conclusion at the next Ministerial Conference, if not earlier. The livelihoods of 260 million people who depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries are at stake.”

On agriculture, despite the intense negotiations during MC13, members were not able to find convergence. Divergences remained on public stockholding (PSH) for food security purposes and in respect of timelines, expected outcomes and the scope of the flexibility to be provided to food imports by the most vulnerable countries from export restrictions.

DG Okonjo-Iweala recalled that this has been in the works for over two decades. “At MC12, we couldn’t even agree on a text. Even though there are challenges, for the first time we have a text. We couldn’t finish the work on it here. So let us get back to Geneva and deliver!” she said.

DG Okonjo-Iweala thanked members for their efforts to seek convergence on difficult issues, particularly as the Conference took place against a global backdrop marked by economic and geopolitical uncertainty. “We have worked hard this week. We have achieved some important things and we have not managed to complete others. Nevertheless, we moved those pieces of work in an important way. At the same time, we have delivered some milestone achievements for the WTO and laid the groundwork for more,” she said.

Other issues

MC13 also saw the entry into force of new disciplines on services domestic regulation, which is expected to lower trade costs by over USD 125 billion worldwide. Supported by 72 WTO members, this joint initiative is designed to facilitate services trade by streamlining and simplifying regulatory procedures. It includes the first-ever commitment in a WTO agreement to ensuring non-discrimination between men and women when they seek permits to supply services.

Co-sponsors of three environmental initiatives at the WTO presented at the Conference the next steps they are taking to advance work on plastics pollution, environmental sustainability, and fossil fuel subsidy reform. More information on each environmental initiative’s presentations at MC13 is available here:

Additionally, ministers representing 123 WTO members issued on 25 February a Joint Ministerial Declaration marking the finalization of the Investment Facilitation for Development (IFD) Agreement and made it available to the public. Participants represent three-quarters of the WTO membership, including close to 90 developing economies and 26 least-developed economies.

MC 13 brought together nearly 4,000 ministers, senior trade officials and other delegates from the WTO’s 164 members and observers as well as representatives from civil society, business and the global media. Initially scheduled for 26-29 February, the Conference was extended in a final push to reach outcomes on the various issues at stake.

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