TWN Info Service on Health Issues (May20/02)
6 May 2020
Third World Network

COVID-19: WTO General Council Chair to convene virtual meet on 15 May
Published in SUNS #9113 dated 5 May 2020

Geneva, 4 May (D. Ravi Kanth) – The Chair of the World Trade Organization’s General Council (GC), Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, will convene a virtual GC meeting on 15 May to discuss the Covid-19 related trade measures, suggesting that the meeting is being held exclusively for transparency and information-sharing purposes.

In his email to members sent on 1 May, the GC chair has suggested that the meeting will be aimed at exchanging “views on the economic and trade impact of this exceptional situation, and the trade-related measures taken” in the context of the worsening Covid-19 pandemic.

So far, the worsening Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in 3.38 million confirmed cases as well as 238,730 deaths around the world.

The uneven progress of Covid-19 has led from moderate to extreme lockdown conditions in various countries.

The Sars-Cov-2 virus (which causes Covid-19) is spreading in developing countries in Asia and Africa, according to the WHO reports.

Against this backdrop, the first virtual GC meeting is intended to take “no decision”.

The GC chair said that a number of delegations had approached him to “express their interest in sharing information and exchanging views on COVID-19 trade-related measures.”

Interestingly, the GC chair’s email for convening the virtual GC meeting on 15 May was preceded by a proposal from a group of nine South American countries on 30 April.

In a restricted room document issued on 30 April, and seen by the SUNS, the nine countries pressed for discussing the COVID-19 actions during the confinement phase and after reopening of the WTO facilities.

The nine South American countries – Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia – emphasized that the WTO has an important role to oversee the application of international trade rules for “the orderly functioning of supply chains of goods and services.”

“The WTO must also contribute substantially to the process of economic recovery following the crisis caused by Covid-19”, the nine countries argued.

The WTO’s transparency pillar, according to the proponents, “has established tools and methodologies to provide Members with the information they require to act with diligence and predictability in their trade relations.”

Therefore, the WTO must respond “urgently, pragmatically, and transparently to the economic and commercial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the proponents argued.

Moreover, WTO members need to discuss “the measures adopted in response to the pandemic that could result in modified flows and conditions of competition in international trade.”

It is incumbent on WTO members “to propose, in a pragmatic and progressive manner, measures needed to address urgent situations,” the proponents claimed.

In what seems to be an attempt to bolster the WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo’s efforts to kick-start the regular work at the WTO, the nine countries proposed the following measures:

A. Working options during “confinement”:

1. The WTO should establish a remote system based on secure technology tools that would allow delegations to continue the work of the Organization while respecting the principles of transparency and inclusiveness.

2. There are various options one can consider for remote technology-based systems, including:

i. Videoconferencing platforms: Members may hold informal conversations, consultations, debates and exchanges of information on various topics that require discussion via video-conference.

In general terms and unless Members decide otherwise, videoconferencing would not be a platform for decision- making. However, the use of virtual meetings would allow Members to make progress in consideration of specific issues.

ii. Members could establish written procedures, ensuring that they are transparent and inclusive, with a reasonable amount of time to allow them to consult with capitals and thus be able to express their views appropriately.

iii. Written procedures can also be used to advance the work of the WTO’s Regular Bodies, such as the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade and the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, in addressing specific trade concerns, or in addressing urgent issues related to the pandemic.

The written procedures or the use of platforms such as the Agriculture Information Management System (AG-IMS) of the Committee on Agriculture can also be adopted.

iv. While the adoption of technologies, platforms and processes should occur as a matter of urgency and in response to the needs and objectives of particular meetings, it should also be done in a gradual manner and take into account lessons learned.

In particular, preference should be given to the use of tools that are accessible and can be implemented by all Members, and the necessary technical assistance should be provided to ensure the full participation of all delegations.

v. For using virtual platforms, Members must take appropriate cyber-security precautions while at the same time safeguarding inclusiveness and transparency. In particular, consideration should be given to confidentiality and the intergovernmental nature of the processes.

B. Return to face-to-face meetings when the WTO reopens:

1. The WTO Secretariat, in accordance with the guidelines of the host country authorities, has indicated that its facilities will remain closed until further notice. However, Members and the WTO Secretariat should begin preparing to resume face-to-face activities once the WTO headquarters is authorized to reopen.

2. Elements for a plan to gradually resume the work: These elements, of course, must be adapted to recommendations made by the health authorities of the host country and the World Health Organization, among others, as the pandemic and knowledge of the disease evolve.

C. Logistical considerations:

i. A gradual, phased return of WTO staff, to ensure the work of the Divisions but to avoid an unnecessary influx of people at the Organization’s headquarters. An increased presence of Secretariat staff should be phased in line with developments and the recommendations of health experts.

ii. In convening face-to-face meetings, priority should be given to the regular work in the committees and other WTO bodies to discuss measures taken in response to the pandemic that may affect flows and conditions of competition in international trade in order to propose, in a pragmatic and progressive manner, measures needed to address urgent situations.

iii. In order to avoid the risks of contagion and in line with the recommendations of social distancing, simultaneous face-to-face meetings at the WTO headquarters should be avoided.

To avoid unnecessary delays in the Organization’s extensive agenda, meetings should be scheduled sequentially or, when feasible, simultaneously, combining face-to-face and virtual meetings.

iv. Face-to-face meetings should be held in the CR (the big committee rooms) in order to maintain adequate distance between attendees.

v. Where feasible and while the recommendation of social distancing is in force, Members should consider reducing the participation of capital-based officials and be represented only by their officials in Geneva.

vi. For as long as WTO Members maintain their confinement measures, more time should be provided for confirmation of meetings and circulation of documents, so that delegations can better prepare given the constraints that each may face.

D. Health considerations:

i. It is imperative to respect the health and safety recommendations of the World Health Organization and the host country authorities.

In this regard, both WTO Members and the WTO Secretariat should ensure that all their staff are duly informed of these recommendations and comply with them. To this end, information sessions on good health practices should be scheduled for delegates and the staff of the Secretariat.

ii. Although not part of the current recommendations, Members and staff of the WTO Secretariat should consider the use of face masks during their interactions and/or when the two-meter distance guideline cannot be assured.

iii. The WTO Secretariat should consider making hand sanitizer available at the entrance to meeting rooms and social areas, as well as sanitary facilities, the cafeteria and the restaurant.

iv. The WTO Secretariat should also reconsider the availability of “self-serve” foodstuffs in both the WTO cafeteria and the restaurant, in order to reduce handling and thus the risk of contagion.

v. Specialized advice should be provided to the WTO Secretariat, through its “Health Task Force”, on disinfection of buildings, communication devices (headsets and microphones), elevators, etc.

It remains to be seen how members would respond to discussing the Covid-19 trade-related measures and whether it is feasible to start work as suggested by the nine South American countries.