Ladies and gentlemen,
Good afternoon from Geneva!

It is my great pleasure to join you today for the launch of a groundbreaking study on how trade agreements can benefit people with disabilities by Dr Bahri.

Dr Bahri has been the tip of the spear in researching novel areas of international economic law. She was one of the first academics to venture into the area of trade and gender and has made an important contribution to the work of the WTO Trade and Gender Research Hub, most recently through participation in our first Trade and Gender Congress this past week.

Trade and disability is another important emerging theme, and there are parallels that could be drawn with trade and gender, so thank you, Amrita, for the terrific work you've done in mapping this issue!

I would also like to thank the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; the Trade and Investment Advocacy Facility; and Cowater International Inc. for sponsoring the study and for providing organizational support.

This event could not have been timed better because just a few days ago, on 3 December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was celebrated worldwide. This day is observed to highlight issues that affect people with disabilities, to champion their rights, and to encourage increased assimilation of persons with disabilities in the socio-political, economic, and cultural aspects of life.

Around 1 billion — or one in seven people globally — have a disability, and 80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries. Disability disproportionately affects women, the poor, and seniors. The numbers thus speak for themselves: disability, even if sometimes invisible, is much more common than we may think.

The multiple global crises facing humanity today, including the shocks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, effects of the climate change, and the war in Ukraine and other countries, pose a significant threat to the global economy and create humanitarian challenges on an unprecedented scale. In such moments of crisis, it is often the most vulnerable, including people with disabilities, who are the most affected and forgotten.

As summarized in Dr Bahri's study, persons with disability often face lack of access to decent employment, depressed wages and working conditions, as well as a dearth of infrastructure, assistive products, and learning networks. They also frequently face discrimination and bias in the workplace. These barriers diminish their ability to participate in different aspects of society life, including the economic sphere, particularly employment.

In line with the key pledge of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind”, it is our responsibility to make the world a more accessible and equitable place. This responsibility is not only statutory. As Stephen Hawking famously wrote in his foreword to the World Report on Disability, “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities”. To achieve this objective, governments, scientists, and the public and private sectors should work together to find innovative solutions for the disabled and weave them into the fabric of society.

One of the best ways of doing so is by creating better economic opportunities for people with disabilities through integrating them into global commerce. Gone are the days when we thought about international trade purely in terms of market opening and tariff reduction. Today, we also want trade to be a source of virtue, and we want to use the power of trade to assist those who may not have fully benefitted from economic globalization before — workers, women, indigenous peoples, and persons with disability. This is in keeping with the objectives of raising standards of living, ensuring full employment, and sustainable development, all enshrined in the preamble to the WTO Marrakesh Agreement.

Traditionally, new approaches to trade have been tested first in free trade agreements. For example, 34% of FTA notified to the WTO contain provisions on labour, 60% on the environment, and 33% on e-commerce. Some of the approaches tried and tested in FTA laboratories subsequently make their way into the WTO negotiating agenda and agreements. Let's look at trade and gender, for example. Gender issues that have traditionally been addressed in FTAs made their way into the WTO some 6 years ago. The WTO has progressively turned from a gender-blind Organization into a gender-aware one.  Our Members have been at the heart of this transformation — from the launch of the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women's Economic Empowerment in 2017, to the creation of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender in 2020, to the multilateral recognition of the importance of women's economic empowerment at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference this year.

I was astonished by Dr Bahri's finding that 27% — or almost a third — of FTAs notified to the WTO contain provisions on trade and disability (as opposed to only 20% on gender). These provisions provide for non-discrimination, compliance with labour rights and standards, and professional skills development for persons with disability. Given that we see more and more of this kind of clause being included in free trade agreements, it is possible that one day the issues of trade and disability could also be included in the WTO agenda.

Free trade agreements are a useful tool that can help integrate people with disabilities into the economy and make the world more inclusive. For example, they could be used to incentivize negotiating partners to implement changes at domestic level in exchange for market access. Trade liberalization can thus help create business and employment opportunities for the disabled and help them overcome barriers to participation in economic life.

Dr Bahri's study is the first comprehensive study that maps out countries' approaches to incorporating provisions on disability into FTAs. Amrita has done the mammoth task of reviewing the 355 FTAs notified to WTO and currently in force and identifying the 98 of them that contain provisions on disability. She developed a typology of such provisions and grouped them into 6 categories. And she also made useful policy recommendations for future negotiations. I am sure that this study will be enlightening and enormously useful for policy-makers, negotiators, civil society, and trade policy afficionados.

And for this reason, I am so very glad that the WTO can be part of this process. So, congratulations to you once again, Amrita! I am looking forward to your introduction of the paper and to the discussion.

Thank you.




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