This research study provides a snapshot of the current debate on WTO reform, and the main issues discussed therein. In particular, it analyses the key elements found in proposals by developed and developing members respectively, and suggests possible ways forward for the latter. It concludes with reflections on the future of the debate, particularly towards the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.
The current debate on WTO reform could be considered to have been set in motion by developed countries in 2018. However, calls by developing countries to reform the functioning of the WTO in an effort to address asymmetries and bring balance to the WTO rules, as well as to create more policy space for themselves to pursue development, are almost as old as the organisation itself. The architecture of the WTO Agreement has an in- built reform mechanism based on the underlying acknowledgement by WTO Members that there was scope for reform and improvement through the work of the WTO councils and committees. It is not surprising therefore that no WTO Member is on record as having spoken against the emerging WTO reform agenda.
While developed-country WTO Members’ calls for reform seemingly targeted developing countries for perceived non-compliance with their notification and transparency obligations and to differentiate between developing countries, developing countries’ response has been to frame their proposals wider so as to bring into the reform purview issues of particular interest to them, and shine a light on the multilateral trading system inequities and asymmetries developing countries argue are aligned in favour of developed countries. Special and differential treatment, developing countries have reaffirmed, is a non-negotiable treaty right.
The following six areas form the contours of the emerging reform agenda, based on proposals so far tabled: resolving crucial and urgent issues threatening the existence of the WTO; strengthening the deliberative, negotiating and rule-making function of the WTO; strengthening the WTO’s monitoring and transparency function; reforming WTO council and committee procedures; increasing the WTO’s relevance in global economic governance, and principles to guide the reform. The focus of developed-country proposals is on strengthening the deliberative, negotiating and rule-making function of the WTO; strengthening the WTO’s monitoring and transparency function; and reforming WTO council and committee procedures, while the developing countries’ broader approach includes resolving crucial and urgent issues threatening the existence of the WTO; increasing the WTO’s relevance in global economic governance, and principles to guide the reform debate.
In the proposals so far on the table WTO Members congregate in agreement on the need to reform the WTO’s notification and transparency procedures, as well as the procedures of WTO councils and committees. No other area of the proposed reform seems to lend itself to the possibility of agreement amongst Members. While the Members are seemingly agreed that the deliberative, negotiating and rule-making function of the WTO needs to be reformed to enhance the inclusiveness of the multilateral trading system, they hold diametrically opposed views on the issue of special and differential treatment for developing countries, an issue central to the reform debate. Developing countries’ focus in the area of increasing the WTO’s relevance in global economic governance, on curbing unilateralist and arbitrary measures as well as the imposition of economic sanctions on other countries without authorization from the United Nations, seems likely to take away the appetite for discussion and search for agreement from those Members guilty of such practices.
The reform discussions are already underway, but all over the place in the WTO councils and committees. Going towards MC12, it would be beneficial to the reform process for WTO Members to agree on a structured dialogue, including the scope, objectives and principles of the reform.