The Last Mile to MC12

By Wayne Mc Cook

The World Trade Organization (WTO) approaches its 12th Ministerial Conference (of Ministers responsible for trade) with its centrality in the Multilateral Trading System (MTS) assured despite the severe shocks it has faced in recent years. These shocks have been magnified by the stagnation in its negotiating pillar and the severe setback to its dispute settlement pillar. The foundation built on the Uruguay Round Agreements that created the WTO and underpin the rules-based system continues to stand the test of time. It does so despite the embedded imbalances that are concerning to many developing countries.

In the face of the severe shocks to the organization, it is remarkable that developing countries, including small vulnerable economies (SVEs), are among the staunchest defenders of the rules-based system with the WTO at its helm. Many WTO Members stressed, “if the WTO did not exist, it would have to be invented”. Simply put, members recognize that without trade rules and the WTO system, chaos would prevail, and the weaker economies would suffer the most.

Despite these affirmations, the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) outlook is modest at best and wisely so. The Conference is being held two years behind schedule, amidst a pandemic that has exacted a staggering toll on lives and on livelihoods across the globe. It comes amidst persistent serious divisions among members on the WTO’s direction and some of its functions (even its composition), particularly in its dispute settlement and negotiating pillars.  MC 12 will not be the “grand reset” that fixes these significant challenges in one fell swoop, but it must be a “recharge”.

A successful MC 12 should strengthen the WTO’s ability to support the MTS and advance predictable and sustainable global trade practices as the international system contends with unprecedented shocks. It can do this by steering clear of the most divisive issues and focusing on areas where members have common interests and a shared vision.  The Director-General and Members already have established a modest set of goals for MC 12’s key deliverables that seek to build on members’ shared interests and address pressing concerns such as trade’s role in helping to fix the COVID-19 crisis.

To this end:

  • MC 12 must adopt a meaningful declaration on trade’s role in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Declaration should facilitate a tangible response from a trade and health perspective. It should take account of the intellectual property (IP) and vaccines initiative and build upon the WTO’s well-received proactive engagement on food security, supply chains, distribution of goods and services and equitable access to vaccines. It should also strive to provide a blueprint for the WTO’s response to future crises. There is work to be done to build convergence on an outcome that all members will embrace. An inclusive and comprehensive approach will assist this.
  • MC 12 must conclude the Fisheries Subsidies agreement, delivering only the second major outcome (along with the Trade Facilitation Agreement) from the Doha Development Agenda after decades of intense negotiations. The deal would significantly boost the efforts to restore fish stocks and assure future sustainability in one of the most critical sectors for food security and the blue economy, vital for small island developing states. It could also serve as a model for the WTO’s timely acceleration of trade and sustainable development work.
  • MC 12 should adopt an implementable work programme on agriculture that can assure future delivery. Agriculture remains one of the most critical, complex, and sensitive trade areas with a tremendous impact on economic performance and food and livelihood security across the globe. The WTO cannot resile from updating the agriculture rulebook, correcting imbalances in its architecture, and addressing the sector’s distortions.
  • MC12 should seek to position the WTO to rekindle work on the nexus between trade and the environment and advance work on trade and sustainable development goals, consistent with its mandate.
  • MC 12 should adopt results-oriented decisions on least developed country (LDC) issues and small economies.
  • MC 12 should secure an outcome that assures further work on development and special and differential treatment that assists developing countries in securing genuine gains from trade that advance their growth and sustainable development.
  • MC 12 should hear from the Joint Statement Initiatives on their work on E-Commerce, Investment Facilitation for Development, Services Domestic Regulation and MSMEs.  This should be complemented by intensifying efforts to overcome divisions and agree on the way forward for multilateral and “non-multilateral” tracks in future work.
  • MC 12 must address the question of WTO reformon which no clear definition or process has so far emerged. Continued uncertainty about what constitutes WTO reform and who should advance it is unhelpful. MC 12 should therefore agree on an inclusive and forward-looking programme for WTO reform that involves all members and seriously considers developing countries and SVEs’ concerns. In any WTO reform process and agenda that the Conference considers, the Caribbean region must secure a rock-solid commitment to preserving and strengthening a fair, inclusive, and transparent system where all Members, especially the small and vulnerable, have a say.
  • MC 12 should strengthen the WTO’s belated embrace of its convening power and “bully pulpit” and advance powerful statements on trade-related matters of global concern, including trade and gender, and trade and climate change.

The MC 12 leadership must ensure that the Conference’s deliberative processes are inclusive. MC 12 follows a disappointing MC 11 at Buenos Aires that had no Ministerial Declaration, and MC 10 at Nairobi that had a sharply divided one around the status of Doha and old and new issues. That divide and the Buenos Aires void cast a long shadow. At the same time, with all members recognizing the vital role of the WTO and its centrality for the MTS, MC 12 is an opportunity to “recharge” the WTO that must be seized. MC 12 is not the place to settle old scores and start new battles. MC 12 must adopt decisions and declarations on priority issues, conclude the fisheries subsidies agreement, and adopt a comprehensive Ministerial Declaration that recommits WTO Members to the objectives set out in the Marrakesh Agreement and reaffirmed in Declarations since. The Caribbean should play its part, including through its participation in coalitions such as the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) (coordinated by Jamaica), in helping members to bridge gaps to deliver vital outcomes that are within reach.

Ambassador Wayne McCook is a former Permanent Representative of Jamaica – to the WTO, where he Chaired the Rules Negotiating Group. He was a lead negotiator for developing countries in the successful Trade Facilitation negotiations concluded at MC 9. He served in the Cabinet of WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo.  This contribution emanates from his remarks at the SRC/OECS Special Lunch Time Chat Series: “Road to MC12”, available here. These comments are made in his personal capacity.