WTO convenes in Abu Dhabi amidst global tensions

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has kicked off its 13th ministerial conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi, with calls for consensus amidst rising geopolitical tensions and the upcoming US election, which pose challenges for major breakthroughs. The conference, running until Thursday, marks the first in two years, with a focus on key issues such as fishing, agriculture, and electronic commerce.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, addressing the opening ceremony, urged trade ministers to reach consensus on MC13 decisions, emphasizing the urgency amid global uncertainty and instability. The current climate, marked by the war in Gaza and related attacks on ships in the Red Sea, further complicates matters, disrupting global maritime trade.

The WTO’s ambitious agenda includes addressing challenges in fishing, agriculture, and electronic commerce. However, achieving significant deals is hindered by the requirement for full consensus among all 164 member states, a formidable task given the current global circumstances.

During the last ministerial meeting in 2022, WTO ministers achieved a historic deal banning harmful fisheries subsidies and a temporary patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines. Now, the WTO faces the challenge of replicating that success, especially with negotiations on major issues remaining open until the final phase of MC13.

The looming US election adds pressure on the WTO to make progress on reform, considering the potential re-election of Donald Trump, who during his previous term disrupted the organization’s dispute settlement system. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has emphasized Washington’s commitment to reforming the WTO, but expectations of significant concessions from the Biden administration in an election year are tempered.

While doubts persist regarding progress on major issues like agriculture, there is optimism for small advances in aiding developing countries. The acceptance of two new WTO members, the Comoros and East Timor, is expected, providing hope for incremental progress.

Despite challenges to achieving full consensus, more plurilateral agreements are emerging, applying to a narrower number of signatories. This trend, coupled with high expectations from developing nations following global crises, raises concerns about the risk of fragmentation in the global economy.

As the Abu Dhabi conference unfolds, the international community watches closely, hoping for collaborative efforts to navigate through uncertainties and bolster the resilience of the WTO in the face of contemporary challenges.

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