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WTO Members Discuss Use Of Virtual Platforms During COVID-19 Lockdown

At a virtual meeting of all WTO members on 17 April, over 50 delegation heads took the floor to exchange views on the use of online discussions and written procedures to continue WTO work and decision-making during the COVID-19 lockdown. Director-General Roberto Azevêdo also used the informal session to urge members to submit information about pandemic-related trade measures to the WTO Secretariat’s ongoing monitoring exercise.

In-person meetings at the WTO and other Geneva-based international organizations have been suspended since mid-March, in line with Swiss government recommendations to curb the spread of the virus. While different WTO bodies have continued with smaller-group conference calls and written exchanges since the lockdown started, this was the first virtual meeting of the entire membership.

In his remarks, the Director-General said the virtual meeting responded to the desire expressed by a large number of members to find ways forward on WTO work during the lockdown. He also noted that several delegations had underscored the challenges involved in maintaining proper consultations with officials and other stakeholders, both in capitals and in Geneva, during the pandemic. He therefore invited delegations to indicate whether they would be comfortable conducting informal meetings and information exchange through virtual platforms. He also asked if they would be open to formal decision-making through virtual meetings or written procedures until traditional in-person gatherings can resume.

“The idea for today is to give members a chance to provide their views on whether they feel this online format is viable for some types of work until we can resume normal meetings,” he said.

“We are facing the deepest recession of our lifetimes, so we cannot lose sight of the big picture. But today’s meeting is about smaller-scale practicalities — about how we can advance work in the weeks ahead,” DG Azevêdo added, noting that the United Nations General Assembly had agreed on a written process for adopting resolutions.

The Director-General briefly addressed the economic consequences of the pandemic, which include severe disruptions to global trade. He pointed to the recent forecast by WTO economists projecting that global merchandise trade would shrink sharply in 2020 and emphasized that maintaining open markets for trade would be critical, along with fiscal and monetary measures, in laying the groundwork for a strong recovery.

DG Azevêdo reported on his recent engagement with the G20 at the group’s emergency virtual meetings of leaders and trade ministers on the COVID-19 crisis. He also described the WTO’s outreach to other international organizations on keeping trade flows open, particularly for essentials such as medical products and food.

The virtual meeting had over 250 participants. A total of 54 delegations spoke. At the end of the meeting, the Director-General said he had heard overwhelming support for the use of virtual meetings for information exchange. As for deliberations on current negotiations and taking formal decisions remotely, members did not have a common view, so more consultation would be needed, possibly with a case-by-case approach for individual decisions. He urged the chairs of WTO bodies to consult with members on how to proceed with regular committee meetings.

The chair of the General Council, Ambassador David Walker (New Zealand), also addressed the meeting, reminding members that keeping trade open was in everyone’s interest, both to prevent supply shortages and to help crisis-stricken economies recover. “Attention now is rightly focussed on protecting people’s lives. Going forward our biggest challenge will be to ensure that trade is part of the solution for the recovery,” he said. “As WTO members it is important to give the signal that we are capable of working together to provide the kind of global answer which will be desperately needed as governments start planning for the aftermath of the crisis.”

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