April 6, 2023
“For a civil society organisation from a developing country to be able to last this long is something to be really proud of. I want to congratulate you personally and CUTS for the substantive work that you do”, said Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in a fireside chat with Pradeep S Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International.
The session was organised at the WTO premises in Geneva and marked the launch of a series of events being organised by CUTS to commemorate its 40th anniversary this year (1983-2023).
During the hour-long interaction titled, “Battling the Headwinds: Challenges and Opportunities for the WTO”, Okonjo-Iweala spoke candidly, fielding questions on diverse aspects including institutional reform, modernisation of the WTO rulebook and the role of civil society organisations.
At the outset, Mehta briefly introduced CUTS, describing its origins as a consumer organisation and its subsequent expansion into international trade and public policy as a felt-need. CUTS ventured into international trade in 1991, when the Uruguay Round negotiations were at their peak, recognising the opportunities presented by globalisation and multilateral trade.
In her remarks, Okonjo-Iweala recognised that a prevailing trust deficit at multiple levels often held back progress in advancing negotiations at the WTO. She stated that the path towards building trust lay not in talk, but by demonstrating it through action.
In this context, she cited the success of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) last year, where WTO Members came together to successfully deliver outcomes on a range of trade issues. In particular, she highlighted the unique accomplishment of MC12 having bridged many prevailing geopolitical divides to reach a positive result, which should lay the foundation for MC13 scheduled to be held in early 2024.
On WTO reform, she pointed out that calls for reform must be understood in the backdrop of the organisation’s achievements. While the GATT/WTO driven multilateral trading system has delivered significant welfare gains over the past decades, its rules must now adapt to the dynamic realities of a rapidly changing world in order to remain fit for purpose. While reaffirming the centrality of multilateral agreements, she noted that a multiplicity of instruments are required to deal with today’s fast-changing world.
The D-G also observed that compromises lay at the heart of any negotiation, and WTO Members need to put in more efforts to reduce rigidity in their negotiating positions and meet each other halfway.
On developmental concerns, she stated that it is time for fresh conversations and a shift in focus to current developmental needs which can spur economic growth, job creation and export promotion, rather than an exclusive focus on legacy issues and earlier injustices faced by developing countries.
In her final remarks, Okonjo-Iweala recognised the importance and value of civil society organisations like CUTS, which have consistently offered constructive and solution-oriented feedback to the WTO over the years. The D-G also said that she was wiling to work with organisations like CUTS to fully leverage all available resources which can help address multifaceted challenges, including capacity-building.
At the end, Mehta pointed out that the WTO has been the flagbearer of multilateralism and deserves the full support and encouragement of the international community. He thanked Dr. Ngozi for the interaction and said that CUTS stood ready to work towards building a wider coalition of support for the multilateral trading system and the WTO.
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