WTO members examined a “road map” for advancing talks on reform of the organization with regards to its deliberative function during a 24-25 July meeting of the General Council. Ambassador Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme of Botswana, the Chair of the General Council, outlined what she said were emerging milestones or “stations” where members will need to reflect and determine the topics to be addressed in order to ensure the issue of WTO reform is successfully addressed at the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) next February.
On her road map, Ambassador Molokomme noted the first of these stations was the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) meeting held on 20 July, where Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala outlined the work ahead leading up to an important senior officials meeting in Geneva on 23-24 October to prepare for MC13, and the General Council meeting of 24-25 July.
The Chair noted that at the TNC meeting she heard “that the prevailing global situation of polycrisis, and the challenges faced by the WTO itself, including with respect to dispute settlement, demanded genuine WTO reform. This is why some suggested that MC13 needs to be a genuine ‘reform Ministerial’”.
The second of the stations will be an informal meeting on WTO reform scheduled for 25-26 September where, at the request of the African Group and the European Union, the focus will be on trade and industrial policy. She noted that this station could, depending on other proponents, include other stops such as retreats focusing on trade and climate and trade and inclusion in early October.
The third station will be a joint informal Heads of Delegation meeting on 10 October to finalize preparations for the senior officials meeting. After this Heads of Delegation meeting, the Chair said she and the Director-General will send a letter to the senior officials informing them about the modalities for their meeting and what will be expected of them.
Station four will be the senior officials meeting, the Chair said, where there are several actions members appear to be seeking at the meeting:
- take decisions on issues which may be ripe for harvest;
- take note of progress achieved, including on reform;
- endorse deliberative pathway targets and their scope, set a structure for decisions at MC13, and structure an outcome document reflective of a reforming WTO;
- deliberate on pressing global issues; and
- provide political guidance on the way forward and possible solutions on specific issues.
The fifth station will be meetings of the TNC and General Council in November, where members will seek to build on progress at the senior officials meeting and flesh out matters where political guidance was received, the Chair said.
The sixth station will be a mid-December meeting of the General Council. “I heard many of you say that we should not simply take stock of progress during this meeting,” the Chair said. “Members stressed that the December (General Council) should be the moment where we begin to crystallize the outcomes and matters to be put forward to ministers at MC13.”
The seventh and final station will be MC13 in Abu Dhabi on 26-29 February 2023. The Chair noted that some members have suggested holding a second senior officials meeting shortly before MC13 to iron out remaining issues and ensure ministers are in a position to take appropriate action, “but this remains to be seen as the journey unfolds.”
“The road map I just presented to you is not set in stone,” Ambassador Molokomme said. “Some other stations and pit stops could be established, as necessary. The road map is there to ensure that our deliberations in the lead up to MC13 have direction and purpose and are targeted towards enabling productive and meaningful ministerial engagement in Abu Dhabi.”
In regard to other reform areas, the Chair noted that dispute settlement reform continues to remain a high priority and that informal discussions are continuing among members. On development aspects of WTO reform, work is continuing within the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Development, with the issue of least developed country “graduation” featuring prominently.
WTO reform proposals
Following the Chair’s intervention, eight reform proposals were presented to members by proponents or groups of proponents. In the discussions that followed, more than 50 members took the floor to comment on the proposals and highlight their priorities under the reform agenda. The reform proposals are available here on the WTO website.
The Chair said she was “truly heartened” by the constructive WTO reform discussions.
“It is through these very communications and proposals that the WTO reform discussion is carried forward. As Chairperson of the General Council, I will continue to facilitate this constructive and result-oriented discussion, in an open, inclusive, transparent and member-driven manner,” she said.
WTO members agreed at their 12th Ministerial Conference in June 2022 to work towards reform of the WTO with the aim of improving all its functions. They agreed the work would address the interests of all members, including development issues.
The General Council and its subsidiary bodies have been tasked with conducting the work, reviewing progress and considering decisions, as appropriate, to be submitted to MC13.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.