Let me start by saying that it has been a privilege to serve as your Chairman of the General Council. What I say now are my broad reflections on the past year.
It should be increasingly clear that our work is not immune to the growing concerns about the impact of globalisation, trade and trade agreements on job security, inequality and development. Such concerns have been raised by many developing countries in the past, but the fact that similar concerns are now more strongly voiced by citizens across developed countries is a significant new development and manifests in ways that deeply affect our work.
Many of you will know that this year we are celebrating the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Twenty years ago at an event in Geneva commemorating the 50th anniversary of the GATT, President Mandela delivered a wonderful speech on the multilateral trading system. Many of the issues he raised then continue to resonate - and one line has a particular bearing today. He stated that: “Rules must be applied… but if they contain prescriptions that cannot be complied with by all, or if the results benefit too few, then injustice will emerge. Then it is prudent to remember that no amount of rules or their enforcement will defeat those who struggle with justice on their side.” President Mandela was of course drawing on his own experience of South Africa’s struggle for freedom but it does have a bearing on our work.
In our organisation, where decisions are taken by consensus, ongoing and practical expressions of the principles of transparency and inclusivity are a baseline for a fairer, more inclusive and developmental multilateralism. At a minimum, inclusivity requires that our processes and decisions fully take into account the views of Members from the different geographic regions, at different levels of development, but the decisions and processes should also fully engage with the competing policy perspectives and priorities of Members.
We all know that the General Council oversees all the regular work of the organisation related to the on-going implementation of the Uruguay Round Agreements and subsequent Ministerial decisions. We also know that four of the five Decisions taken at MC11 will need to be carried forward under the General Council.
But from the vantage point of the Chair of the Council, I now have a much better appreciation of the myriad of processes, procedures and decisions that shape the day-to-day workings of the organisation. Effective decision making at this level is vital for the proper functioning of the organisation and, generally, these processes and decisions are uncomplicated.
However, where procedures are not set out precisely, and where discretionary action is called for, transparency and inclusivity may be even more important to build the trust that is needed to advance our collective, multilateral work. Issues related to such matters arose periodically in the course of the year, and we should deal with such matters sensitively.
In the course of the year we also confronted a range of other challenges. At the outset we ran into a serious delay in appointing Chairs of the regular and negotiating bodies. At the May General Council, we encountered difficulties in adopting the Council agenda. I understand that all the difficulties reflect the seriousness that Members attach to all aspects of the work of the organisation, and are an expression of their legitimate interests.
In many instances, the key to addressing the challenges is to frame and approach the issues in ways that give sufficient comfort to all Members that their concerns are being taken on board - in an even handed manner. It seems to me - and this is personal - that if there is any bias, it should favour the less developed members amongst us.
A great deal of time last year was taken up with the preparations for MC11. Most of this went smoothly but sensitive issues, particularly issues regarding observer status, raise difficulties that are sometimes beyond resolution at the WTO. Most Members seem to agree that the work we undertook just before MC11 on both the Outcome Document and on e-commerce was positive, and I was struck by the fact that the process was marked by a genuine and constructive attempt to narrow differences amongst Members, even though, ultimately, we were unsuccessful.
I am grateful to the Chairs of the Regular Bodies as the work they oversaw allowed the General Council to deliver comprehensive reports of all our work to Ministers at the opening of MC11. I again congratulate Argentina for a well-organised Ministerial Conference that many have said met high standards of inclusivity and transparency. In no small measure, this was due to the qualities Minister Malcorra brought to the process. We should build on this experience.
Aside from a few troubling moments, the experience of chairing the General Council has been a rewarding one - personally and professionally - and in ways I had not foreseen just one year ago. I have been enriched by the many opportunities to work with exceptional individuals: highly experienced Ambassadors, Delegates and Members of the Secretariat.
I want to thank you, Roberto, for our collaboration over the course of the year, particularly in the run up to and at MC11. I also thank Victor and all the Members of his team for the support and guidance they provided over the year, always in a spirit collegiality and good humour. Stefania offered support on almost a day-to-day basis, even though I may have tested her patience with countless revisions of speaking notes. I am grateful to Zainab and Joan for their support over the year, particularly during the intense weeks leading to MC11, and at the Conference itself.
I had always been aware that the Secretariat is a reservoir of accumulated institutional knowledge but I now have a deeper appreciation of the depth and scope of that expertise. The WTO is a Member-driven organisation but it is absolutely clear that the Secretariat is a valuable asset and an indispensible pillar of the system.
In light of the challenges we confront with respect to the WTO’s negotiating function and dispute settlement function, we may need to pay greater attention and - indeed we are duty bound - to protect the international stature of the Secretariat by ensuring it always remains above the partisan positions Members take on issues.
Let me conclude by thanking all delegations for their dedicated work and for support over the year. I remain grateful to the African Group for nominating me as their candidate for the DSB in 2016, when the long, six-year rotation passed back to Africa. After a year’s sojourn as General Council Chair, I am happy to return home to the Group!
I’ll stop here and thank you for your kind attention.