The World Trade Organization (WTO) is looking for a new identity that goes beyond eliminating customs barriers or settling trade disputes between countries. The twelfth ministerial conference, which ended in Geneva on Friday 17 June, was an opportunity for the WTO to conclude a few agreements in the areas of fishing or patents. But this meeting was above all the moment to show itself to be indispensable in the resolution of the crises that are shaking the planet, from the protection of biodiversity to food security.
In her lengthy closing speech, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala did not once utter the words “tariffs”, say anything about disruptions to supply chains or on soaring shipping prices. On the other hand, she assured that the WTO could deal with questions relating to “commons”before congratulating himself on having signed “an agreement focused on environmental sustainability”then to conclude that trade “is part of the solution of our time”.
In fact, the answer to the food crisis lies partly in trade, for example by maintaining the supply of wheat in importing countries, despite the war in Ukraine and the blockade of the Black Sea, or by dissuading the States from impose restrictions on their exports. Thanks to an agreement that has just been signed in Geneva, the World Food Program (WFP) will be exempt from these restrictions and will be able to buy agricultural raw materials in all countries.
If, as experts fear, global pandemics will be more proven, the WTO also has a role to play in facilitating trade in medical equipment. The Geneva institution has negotiated an agreement, admittedly fragile and limited, but which could serve as a model during future pandemics. It authorizes developing countries to manufacture vaccines against Covid-19, without the authorization of the patent holders, and for a limited period of five years.
Finally, the WTO wanted to show that it could participate in the protection of biodiversity by eliminating subsidies intended for fishermen who overexploit certain fish populations. The agreement reached in Geneva is however limited to species already threatened.
The new international context obliges the WTO to change its raison d’être. Since its creation in January 1995, trade has doubled in volume and customs tariffs have fallen by an average of 9%. This period of hyper-globalization, which lasted until the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, resulted in an increase in trade, but also in numerous relocations and destruction of jobs in rich countries. Multinational corporations have taken advantage of cheap labor in developing countries, weaving complex – and fragile – value chains across the globe.
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