UNCTAD IIA Conference: WTO talks on investment facilitation take centre stage in break-out session

The UNCTAD High-Level IIA Conference, held in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 2019 featured a session dedicated to investment facilitation and promotion. Participants focused largely on an initiative backed by over 90 WTO members to develop a multilateral framework on investment facilitation. (Editor’s note: for a detailed update on the full High-Level IIA Conference, see the related Insight in this edition of ITN.)

The structured discussions among various WTO members for a multilateral framework on investment facilitation were the subject of significant debate.

At the UNCTAD session, some participants raised this potential framework as a useful opportunity to draw from the lessons learned in negotiating the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and adapting them to investment. Others questioned whether the WTO was the appropriate forum for such an effort and whether binding disciplines subject to that organization’s dispute settlement mechanism could prove counterproductive.

South African Ambassador to the WTO Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter noted that different WTO members will have varying levels of capability in implementing some of the disciplines currently being considered in the structured discussions. For example, she noted that her country has one-stop shops for facilitating investments at both the national and provincial levels, but that their capacities are not at the same level across the board, which would prove difficult when facing the same WTO commitments.

Samira Sulejmanovic , head of the department devoted to bilateral trade relations within Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations, was also among the speakers at the session. She questioned whether a clear link could be drawn between the TFA, which deals with cutting red tape and streamlining customs procedures for goods being traded across borders, and investment facilitation, which deals with a wider range of issues. She also highlighted the need for greater transparency in the WTO process and the potential for overlap with the work already being done at UNCTAD.

Related concerns were raised by Kinda Mohamadieh, a legal advisor and senior researcher at Third World Network in Geneva. She noted the broad scope of the topics discussed in the investment facilitation initiative. She also pointed out that while the WTO’s GATS involved a positive-list approach where members could choose which services sectors would involve commitments at the global trade club, the current approach in investment facilitation appeared to be that of a negative list. Improved targeting of investment-related measures to achieve sustainable development objectives is also key, she said.

Meanwhile, Matthew Stephenson, Policy and Community Lead on Trade and Investment at the World Economic Forum, described some of the work underway at his organization with firms in developing countries to get a better sense of which investment facilitation measures are effective in achieving their aim and are also supportive of sustainable development.

Opeyemi Abebe, an advisor on trade competitiveness for the Commonwealth Secretariat, noted that while the Commonwealth does not have a specific position on the structured discussions, it is a process that they are watching closely. She also noted that the discussion would need to have sustainable development at its core and warned against that getting lost if a multilateral framework on investment facilitation goes ahead at the WTO.