World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland
Policy Analysis

Reflections on the Postponement of the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference

Following the news that the World Trade Organization is indefinitely postponing its 12th Ministerial Conference—just days before the event was due to start in Geneva—IISD's Sofia Baliño reflects on this unprecedented situation and its potential implications.

By Sofia Baliño on November 29, 2021

The news broke heading into the weekend that the World Trade Organization (WTO) was postponing its 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) indefinitely, just days before the event was due to start in Geneva. The decision was made at a meeting of the General Council late on Friday evening and was made public shortly thereafter by Bloomberg News and on social media.

The decision resulted from the ongoing health crisis and in response to new travel restrictions imposed by Switzerland aimed at preventing a potentially dangerous new variant of the COVID-19 virus from arriving on Swiss soil. The result of these restrictions would have been that delegations coming from several southern African countries, as well as Belgium, Israel, and Hong Kong, would no longer have been able to attend the conference. While many UN processes have moved online due to COVID-19, and while WTO negotiations in Geneva have also been conducted online for much of the pandemic, WTO members have made clear that negotiations at the level of ministers must be done in person to ensure that members can participate on equal footing.

In the trade world, this particular situation is unprecedented. The decision to postpone the ministerial was the correct one, both from a health standpoint and given that moving forward would have sacrificed the possibility of inclusive participation. It also means that several months and years of work by the WTO secretariat, delegations, civil society, academia, and the private sector have now taken a heavy hit, the results of which may take months or years to be felt. It was a wholly unexpected outcome. It needs to be acknowledged with compassion, given the real people who are behind these efforts to make these ministerial conferences happen and were working tirelessly to ensure that MC12 could proceed smoothly and safely.

Looking ahead to what this means for trade politics and policy-making, the results are still unclear. Negotiations to clinch a long-awaited deal to curb harmful subsidies to fishing will likely take longer to make their way across the finish line, given the political direction that was needed to help finalize the agreement text. Those tough calls need ministers to make the final decision and then sell the outcome at home. What this means for other negotiating issues, such as what approach to take on trade and public health, or whether and how to renew a moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, is not yet known. However, there are some areas, such as joint statements from WTO member groups, that will likely not be affected in the same way, given that those statements were largely finalized well in advance. What route those processes will take could be known in the coming days.

Yet WTO ministerials have another intrinsic benefit, one that’s hard to quantify in terms of decisions taken or deals made. It’s a chance for the international trade community to get together in one place, get to know each other better, and work to imagine where trade policy can go next. This is the event that people mark on their calendars months and years in advance, plan their travel around, save precious money for. It’s where new friendships are forged and old ones rekindled. COVID-19 has already meant an unusual gap between ministerials—4 years, to be precise. Normally, these events are held biennially, with the last one held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017. How much longer we have to wait for MC12 to be possible—and in a way that is safe and enables inclusive participation—is anyone’s guess. But in the meantime, we need to keep that trade conversation going, to see how we can craft a fairer trading system that is ready to tackle today’s and tomorrow’s sustainability challenges.

The articles in this edition of the Trade and Sustainability Review were written before the MC12 postponement was announced. We have decided to publish them in their original versions, out of respect for our authors and the ideas they shared, and as part of our collective contribution to that wider conversation on how trade can support sustainable development. We will also be holding our Trade and Sustainability Hub events this week, in a fully virtual format, to help support our trade community to the extent we can.

We thank our authors and our readers for their continued support, and we hope you and your loved ones are safe and well during this extraordinarily difficult time.

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