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U.S. trade chief negotiator says ‘serious challenges’ exist for WTO

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer warned his counterparts at the start of the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires this week that the longtime global trade body risks becoming irrelevant.

   U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer warned his counterparts at the start of the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires this week that the longtime global trade body must address some “serious challenges” to stay relevant.
   “Many are concerned that the WTO is losing its essential focus on negotiation and becoming a litigation-centered organization,” Lighthizer said. “Too often, members seem to believe they can gain concessions through lawsuits that they could never get at the negotiating table. We have to ask ourselves whether this is good for the institution and whether the current litigation structure makes sense.”
   He also chastised the WTO for not moving some countries, such as China, off “development status.”
   “We cannot sustain a situation in which new rules can only apply to the few, and that others will be given a pass in the name of self-proclaimed development status,” Lighthizer said. “Indeed, we should all be troubled that so many members appear to believe that they would be better off with exemptions to the rules.”
   Lighthizer criticized the WTO for insufficient efforts to ensure that the countries participating in the trade body are meeting their membership obligations.
   “It is impossible to negotiate new rules when many of the current ones are not being followed,” he said. “This is why the United States is leading a discussion on the need to correct the sad performance of many members in notifications and transparency. Some members are intentionally circumventing these obligations, and addressing these lapses will remain a top U.S. priority.”
   Lastly, the chief U.S. trade negotiator said the WTO must do more to make markets efficient and take on challenges such as overcapacity of certain global commodities, including steel and aluminum; curtailing market influences of state-owned enterprises; and ending non-scientific based phytosanitary requirements.
   “The United States looks forward to working with all members who share our goal of using the WTO to create rules that will lead to more efficient markets, more trade and greater wealth for our citizens. Such outcomes will build public support not only for open markets, but for the WTO itself,” Lighthizer said.
   In his opening remarks to the Ministerial Conference, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said without the 70-year-old trade body, the world would not be as economically well off as it is today. He noted that during and after the global financial crisis, less than 5 percent of the world’s imports were impacted as the result of trade restrictions.
   “Trading nations held each other to the commitments agreed multilaterally,” he said. “As a result, we avoided unilateral actions, potential trade wars and economic catastrophe.
   “In the heat of crisis, the WTO did what it was created to do. And it will continue to provide stability and certainty – especially in challenging times,” Azevêdo said. “That’s why I’m so relentless in beating the drum for the system. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s essential, it works, and it’s the best we have.”

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