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WTO faces window of opportunity for multilateralism — spokesperson

GENEVA, Dec. 11 (Xinhua) — The next year or two will be a window of opportunity for multilateralism, and members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) should seize it in order to reach agreements and achieve positive results, said WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell.

“The record is mixed. We’ve had some good outcomes. We’ve had some very difficult outcomes,” Rockwell, who has served as spokesman for the 164-member organization since 1996, told Xinhua in a recent interview, as the WTO commemorates its 25th anniversary this year.

The WTO, formally established on Jan. 1, 1995, marked the biggest milestone of international trade since the end of World War II.

Recalling that “there was a lot of success” in the early days of the WTO, Rockwell said “we were a victim of both our success, and of bad timing.”

The Second WTO Ministerial Conference held in Geneva in 1998 and attended by state leaders including Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair was supposed to focus on the 50th anniversary of the WTO’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, but was overshadowed by riots and demonstrations.

Then came the Seattle protests in 1999, sometimes referred to as the “Battle of Seattle,” a series of protests that disrupted the WTO Ministerial Conference and opposed trade policies, which were also motivated by anti-capitalist and environmental agendas.

“They thought that the WTO is all powerful, omnipresent, and can touch every element of our lives, which, of course, was a gross exaggeration,” Rockwell said.

Meanwhile, Rockwell said, the large-scale protests prompted the WTO to reflect on itself and engage increasingly with civil actors.

“We recognized that we needed to do things in a more open way politically,” he said. This gave rise to the first Public Forum held in 2001 that has since grown into the organization’s largest annual outreach event.

It is attended by over 1,500 representatives from civil society, academia, business, the media, governments and inter-governmental organizations, and is aimed at providing a platform to discuss trade developments and propose solutions to enhance the multilateral trading system.

REFORMS NEEDED

Acknowledging that “having a stressful time is not something new” for the organization, Rockwell said that the WTO remains resilient and never stops reforming itself.

He said that the WTO is facing pressure to reform as several multilateral negotiations have stalled and there is an imbalance between the body’s legislative and litigation functions.

The WTO’s dispute settlement body is currently paralyzed. The Appellate Body, considered as the supreme court for global trade disputes, has been unable to hear any new cases since Dec. 11, 2019, because it has only one judge.

Furthermore, there is an increasing number of dispute cases submitted to the WTO for settlement while the reform priorities vary from country to country, Rockwell said.

He also highlighted that COVID-19 has led to an unstoppable acceleration of digital trade, an area that should be included in the reform process.

“The question is how to negotiate while protecting the national interests, and also the international multilateral interests. And that’s the tricky thing to do,” he said.

DIRECTOR-GENERAL SELECTION

Since Aug. 31, the global trade watchdog has de facto become leaderless with the departure of Director-General Roberto Azevedo, who surprisingly announced in May that he would step down one year before the official end of his term.

Rockwell, who has worked with five of the six successive director-generals of the WTO during his tenure so far, said that the first thing to do was “to get our Director-General in place.”

“There comes a time, and it’s usually at a moment of real decision-making, where you need a Director-General. And we’re going to have to face a lot of times like that.”

The incoming head has to be a “good manager” and understanding people without having to be a technical expert in every field, he said.

“You need to know who to ask about what, and you need to know the right questions to ask. And that has to do with managing people,” Rockwell said.

OPPORTUNITY FOR MULTILATERALISM

The next year or two will be a window of opportunity for multilateralism, and that WTO members should seize it in order to reach some tangible positive results.

“I think we need to take advantage of this opportunity, and deliver something for the people of the world, because I think they’re counting on us,” he said.

Rockwell also stressed that China has “a lot at stake in the success of the multilateral trading system.”

“I think that the Chinese will be instrumental in helping to bring about reform. Clearly there can’t be any reform without China because China is just an important player … And China’s leadership role will be essential,” he said.

Underlining that positive results can only be reached “in an atmosphere of trust and confidence,” the spokesman hoped that WTO members would not “lose sight of the common objectives and bring about some agreements that can really have an impact on the lives of all the people that we represent.”

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