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WTO ‘must live up to its importance’, says Swiss minister

'WTO clear off!' Protesters get their message across in Geneva on Saturday © Keystone/ Valentin Flauraud

The World Trade Organization (WTO) serves to secure peace, prosperity and a sustainable economy, said Economics Minister Guy Parmelin at the opening of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva on Sunday.

This content was published on June 12, 2022 - 16:04
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Following Covid-related delays, the WTO’s highest-level meeting is being held for the first time in four-and-a-half years, with issues such as pandemic preparedness, food insecurity against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine and overfishing of the world’s seas on the agenda.

“Now more than ever the WTO must live up to its importance. First of all, peace must reign again,” Parmelin said, adding that in view of the war in Ukraine the system, with its common rules, must be strengthened.

He said the challenges remain great – “be it climate change, health, biodiversity or prosperity” – and solutions needed to be found quickly, stressing that their feasibility depended on the will of the 164 member countries.

“The WTO is an institution in search of solutions and common rules. Its successes are tangible because world trade is an engine of growth,” he said.

Navigating landmines

At a time when some experts are questioning the WTO’s future and relevance, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the Geneva-based trade body needed reform.

“The road will be bumpy and rocky. There may be a few landmines on the way,” she said before the four-day meeting. “We’ll have to navigate those landmines and see how we can successfully land one or two deliverables.”

Okonjo-Iweala insisted that trade had lifted one billion people out of poverty, but poorer countries – and poor people in richer ones – are often left behind.

For his part, Parmelin said WTO rules had made it possible to open up a large part of global markets. “However, the organisation is currently going through a difficult period. New steps towards further liberalisation are missing, dispute settlement is blocked and world trade seems to be paralysed in the fight against climate change,” he admitted.

Demonstration

On Saturday about 600 people protested in Geneva against the WTO and free trade following a call by farmers’ organisations. The demonstration was accompanied by a large police presence.

For small farmers, the WTO, as the guardian of free trade, is a source of ruin and death, said the protest organisers.

The farmers’ organisations accuse the WTO of having transformed in many countries the production of food for the population into the production of agricultural export goods. The result, they say, is that multinational corporations were seizing land and water and causing farmers to disappear.

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