What’s at stake? – Caribbean Trade Law and Development

Alicia Nicholls

All eyes of the trade policy world will be on the United Arab Emirates’ glistening capital city, Abu Dhabi, for the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Thirteenth Ministerial Conference (MC 13) taking place February 27-29, 2024. Under the chairmanship of His Excellency Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Trade, WTO members’ trade ministers and other delegates will discuss several key priority areas in hopes of securing a substantive package of outcomes which reinvigorates some confidence and strength to the WTO and the rules-based multilateral trading system which it oversees. This article takes a broad look at some of the major issues being discussed.

Unlike other major multilateral organisations, the WTO is run by its members. Its highest decision-making body, the Ministerial Conference, comprises all of its members and meets every two years. The main exception to this was the four-year lag between the Buenos Aires Ministerial (2017) and Geneva Ministerial (2022) due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar to the run-up towards the last ministerial (MC 12), pressure exists for achieving concrete outcomes from this Ministerial Conference. Public commentary leading up to the ministerial has ranged the gamut from optimistic to pessimistic, especially since some issues like the TRIPS Waiver extension and agriculture appear far from reaching consensus. Significant discussions and preparatory work by delegations leading up to MC13 seek to ensure, however, that the pessimists are proven wrong. Indeed, ever-optimistic, the WTO’s formidable Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is quoted as stating ““You know it’s always very difficult and seems like it’s not going to work…But we never say never. We are going to get it done.”

Two new accessions

On the bright side, the WTO will see two new accessions – Comoros and Timor Leste, the first since 2016 and which will bring its membership from 164 currently to 166. Both Comoros and Timor Leste are least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing States (SIDS), emblematic of the importance small States in particular attach to the rules-based multilateral trading system despite its flaws. Some twenty-two other countries or separate customs territories are presently in the accession process. This lends credence to the argument that despite its shortcomings, countries still see WTO membership as desirable.

Fisheries Subsidies Agreement

Securing the entry into force of the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement, which was adopted at MC12 in 2022, is one priority area, as well as the second round of negotiations under that Agreement. The Agreement establishes binding multilateral rules seeking to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies which have been detrimental to the world’s fish stocks. The Agreement requires two-thirds of the WTO’s membership to deposit instruments of acceptance. Barbados, Dominica and Haiti recently deposited their instruments of acceptance this month. Indeed, Barbados’ Ambassador Matthew Wilson shared a video entitled “The Barbadian Matriarchy of Fishing” to highlight the importance of supporting small-scale and artisanal fishing in Barbados.

E-commerce moratorium extension

In place since 1998, the long-standing agreement among Members against imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions is due to expire unless Members agree once again to extend it. This e-commerce moratorium has been controversial as some countries argue that it has been critical for a smooth environment for digital trade. However, some developing countries are concerned about foregone customs revenue.

Trade and development

Development-related issues are also key on the agenda, particularly how to operationalize the development flexibilities – Special and Differential Treatment – within the WTO’s agreements. In December 2023, WTO members agreed on a draft decision to be submitted to trade ministers for approval at MC13 on further integration of small economies into the world trading system. Additionally, in January 2024, the Plastics Pollution Dialogue, comprising 76 WTO Members, reached agreement on a ministerial statement to be issued at MC13.

Incorporation of JSI outcomes into WTO rulebook

Since the stalemate of the Doha Development Agenda, some WTO members have turned to joint statement initiative discussions as a way to advance rule-making in the WTO in the areas of e-commerce, MSMEs, investment facilitation for development and domestic regulation in services trade. The JSI discussions have been criticized by some members, most prominently India and South Africa, as ‘illegal’ and lacking a formal mandate for the discussions. As such, the recently concluded Investment Facilitation for Development (IFD) Agreement’s incorporation as a plurilateral agreement under Annex 4 of the Marrakesh Agreement remains fraught. It would require consensus, including support from non-parties to the Agreement and from countries which oppose the JSI process. Six CARICOM Member States (Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Suriname) participated in the IFD Agreement negotiations and are among the 118 WTO members which support the Agreement.

WTO Reform

WTO reform has been an important agenda item, but the Doha Development Agenda stalemate and the Appellate Body crisis have reiterated the need to reform the institution’s dispute settlement function. A draft text on dispute settlement reform has elicited much discussion but there appears so far to be no way forward for the resumption of a two-tier system.

Lots at stake

Interestingly, the WTO’s MC13 will be taking place at the same time as the 46th Regular Heads of Government Meeting in Georgetown, Guyana, opening on Sunday, February 25. However, it is expected that at least some of CARICOM’s trade ministers will be at MC13, especially given the nature of the issues being discussed.

In conclusion, there is a lot riding on MC13. MC13 cannot be divorced from the economic and political context in which it is occurring. For example, the fact that this is a ‘mega-election’ year with elections due in major countries, such as the US and India, for example, mean that there is added pressure on delegations to ensure that MC13 outcomes deliver for their own citizens and are politically palatable for their electorate. It is hoped that whatever the outcomes, they help to strengthen, revitalise and restore some confidence to an institution which, though not perfect, is indispensable for global trade and the wider global economy.

Alicia Nicholls is an international trade consultant and founder of the Caribbean Trade Law & Development Blog www.caribbeantradelaw.com.

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