13th WTO Ministerial Conference kicks off in Abu Dhabi as progress on key issues remains elusive

Published On: February 27, 2024 08:00 AM NPT By: Kosh Raj Koirala  | @KoshRKoirala

ABU DHABI (UAE), Feb 27:  The 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) kicked off amidst a grand inauguration ceremony here in the capital city of United Arab Emirates on Monday, with the participation of trade ministers and senior government officials from around the world.

This four-day event brings together ministers and senior officials from over 160 UN member states to discuss international trade rules and regulations. Private sector leaders, NGOs, and civil society representatives  are also among those participating in the event.

Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies, Ramesh Rijal is currently in Abu Dhabi, leading Nepali delegation to the MC13.

The conference allows the global community to work together toward advancing a more efficient, sustainable, and inclusive trading system. The conference has a number of agenda including fisheries, agriculture and the e-commerce moratorium on the table.

Member states are expected to adopt a declaration at the conclusion of the conference. The draft declaration has already been circulated among the member states as the negotiations are underway to give it a final shape.

The MC13 is taking place amid a section of countries increasingly questioning the effectiveness of this body to help poor and underdeveloped countries. 

In his speech at the inaugural session,  Minister of State for Foreign Trade and Chair of the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference 2024 Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi all the member states to work towards showing that the WTO is alive and well and fully capable of delivering the results that matter to people living in all the countries. 

“I ask all of you to show the world that the WTO is alive and well, and fully capable of delivering results that matter to people everywhere. We also need to show through the outcomes of this conference that trade and the multilateral system can and will contribute to development," he said. "We have the unique opportunity to collectively shape the future of trade. It rests in each of our hands. Let us seize this moment to ensure a prosperous future for all countries. We can and must achieve this."

Addressing the inaugural session, MC13 Chair Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme, chairperson of the WTO’s General Council, said the work facing trade ministers at MC13 “is more important than ever” in light of global challenges such as Russia-Ukraine war and supply chain disruption due to the ongoing tension in the Red Sea. “Amid growing economic uncertainties and geopolitical tensions, we must collectively ensure that the WTO is fit to respond to the challenges of today,” she said.

Also, addressing the inaugural session, WTO Secretary General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on trade ministers “to reach consensus on MC13 decisions” this week. “Looking around, uncertainty and instability are everywhere,” she said, adding that the world is in an “even tougher place today” compared to two years ago when WTO trade ministers last met in Geneva.

Ministerial conferences are the apex decision-making body of the WTO and serve as crucial forums for member states to address trade challenges, refine trade rules, and set the agenda for global trade policy.

Building upon the advancements of MC12 held in Geneva in June 2022, where significant strides were made in areas such as fisheries subsidies, food security, and e-commerce, MC13 is set to focus on enhancing the access of developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to the global trading system, intellectual property, and WTO dispute resolution mechanisms.

The biannual ministerial conference is also seen as an opportunity to explore greater collaboration and partnership with non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and civil society to enhance the effectiveness of trade policies and programmes via a series of side events.

Some of these side events include the TradeTech Global Forum, promoting the use of technology in global supply chains, and sessions on trade facilitation in partnership with various financial and business organizations.

Although there is a hope for progress, particularly on fishing, agriculture and electronic commerce, big deals are unlikely as the WTO’s rules require full consensus among all 164 member states. A few major countries including the US and India--which are soon going to the general elections-- are less inclined to make any major agreements. 

As the negotiations on agriculture subsidies are underway, agitating farmers in India observed "Quit WTO Day" on Monday. "There is not much hope for a major breakthrough on any issues. But the negotiations will continue till the end," said a diplomat involved in the negotiation. 

Two new member states join WTO

The Republic of the Comoros and the Republic of Timor-Leste are now new members of the WTO. Their accession to the World Trade Organization will be officially announced during MC13.

These are the first two accessions since Afghanistan and Liberia in 2016.

Currently, the WTO has a total 164 members. Nepal became a member of WTO in 2004.

WTO launches $50m fund for women entrepreneurs

The World Trade Organization (WTO) on Sunday launched a $50 million fund to help female entrepreneurs in developing countries to enable them to export more using the opportunities offered by the digital economy.

Director General of the WTO Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made the announcement a day before the 13th ministerial conference of the WTO began in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates.

Okonjo-Iweala, speaking alongside the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi, said the “ground-breaking initiative... embodies our collective commitment to empower women. We need catalytic solutions to solve the financing issue that women face.”

The fund will help businesses run by women in developing countries to adopt digital technologies and increase their online presence. The UAE is the first country to donate $ 5 million to the Fund.

WTO Secretary General Okonjo-Iweala said that “a common refrain among them is the need for adequate financing to scale their businesses and to tap into the vast opportunities of global trade.”

On Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan,  announced that the UAE will provide a $10 million grant to support a number of key initiatives of the WTO including the Fisheries Funding Mechanism, the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF), and the Women Exporters in the Digital Economy (WEIDE) Fund. These initiatives are being launched during the WTO 13th Ministerial Meeting that will continue till Thursday.

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