25 September 2006

Public Forum: “What WTO for the XXI Century?”

Opening Remarks by Mr. Pascal Lamy, WTO Director-General

Director-General Pascal Lamy, in his opening remarks to the WTO Public Forum on 25 September 2006, noted the “frustration and regret” of WTO members, academia and civil society over the risk of “losing a major — maybe unique — opportunity to integrate more vulnerable economies into international trade, and undermining their potential for contributing to sustainable growth and poverty alleviation”. This is what he said:

Your Excellency, Mr Turner, Mr. Burgmans, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to the 2006 WTO Public Forum!

The Forum provides us with a timely opportunity to debate on trade and its contribution to growth and development. This year's topic “Which WTO for the XXI century” invites us to share our thoughts and ideas on the shape and direction of the World Trade Organization of the future.

All our speakers today share a deep belief in a strong, rules-based international system and I hope therefore that their message will resonate in the proceedings of the Forum. Let me mention that , UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked me to apologize for not being able to join us in person, but he wanted to share his views in a message.

Bringing more than 1000 people together at WTO would not have been possible without the generous support of the Norwegian Government and the European Commission, for which I am grateful.

Some may argue that it is no surprise that so many people have turned up for this year's Forum, with the multilateral talks crashed. Accidents draw many spectators, and too often, we prefer to watch instead of helping get the car back on the road.

It is true that the momentum and title of this Forum seem perfectly timed. A public debate about the future of this Organization when the Doha negotiations are suspended, and its future unclear. Add to this that the period of reflection we have entered — after 11 years of existence — is marked by growing doubts about the role and success of international co-operation and multilateral disciplines and the rise of inward looking and short-term political thinking.

Therefore, this seems the perfect time for a kill as we are waiting for the ambulance, but we don't know when it will reach the scene of the accident nor if the right instruments and medication are on board. Those that oppose the WTO and everything it stands for, see a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to finish what they think they have started years ago: stop the WTO from functioning. All it needs is a final push over from the cliff and dance on its ashes.

I beg to differ. You have indeed came to the WTO at a very difficult moment in time and will undoubtedly pose critical questions about its future. You have always done so, much to the benefit of this Organization, and I encourage you to do so again today and tomorrow. Many of you have challenged the functions of the WTO, its imperfections and problematic delivery mechanism. These are challenges that deserve a continuous and solution-oriented debate, including during this Forum.

But I am convinced that most of you came because you believe in the virtues of the multilateral trading system and you care about its strengthening and, not its weakening. A system that builds upon the foundations of the GATT to establish a more just and more transparent basis for international trade. Where 149 members whether big or small have the same say. Which is working to make trade rules more development friendly. In sum, a key contribution to harness globalisation for the benefit of all. This is the mandate we all agree in Doha in 2001 and upon which I undertook to act when I was selected Director-General last year.

Let me remind you that at the age of 11, the WTO has acted successfully as a forum in which Members discuss their trade relations and policies, settle their trade disputes, and agreed to negotiate new or improved trade rules. While it is true that the WTO was born out of negotiations, and everything the WTO does is the result of negotiations, the WTO also has other roles and functions which are often forgotten.

The WTO is a set of binding rules contained in the numerous agreements signed by the vast majority of the world's trading nations. These are the ground-rules for international commerce and the basis for interaction between the WTO membership in the many councils, committees and working parties it has. A forum for exchange and interactions and, where needed, for handling and settling trade disputes. The most fundamental principles of the system — most-favoured-nation and national treatment — are monitored permanently as the safeguards for transparency, predictability and the promotion of fair competition. And by making the case for open trade, the WTO contributes to economic development.

Not that trade opening in itself creates welfare. Not that welfare creation in itself reduces poverty. We all know that the mechanisms that translate trade opening into poverty reduction are complex and necessitate the appropriate policy context. But what we also know is that if trade is not sufficient, it certainly is a necessary ingredient. This is the core of what I have called the “Geneva Consensus”.

There are flaws in the system — I have repeatedly said that the WTO is far from being a perfect instrument — but the last 10 years of multilateral trade cooperation has shown that we need this, albeit imperfect, international instrument, and our commonly shared goal should be to work together to make the WTO better reflect our aspirations.

In that sense, the WTO is like an 11-year old. The expectations are often too high and there is not enough appreciation for what it already accomplished. What the WTO needs today is a mix of political courage and vision to improve the things it does well and change some of its imperfections.

I would have preferred to stand in front of you under different, more encouraging circumstances since it is always easier to find your way to the door with the lights on. In July, we missed an important opportunity to advance our plead for a stronger multilateral trading system. This is not the first time we miss a deadline. But under the present economic and geopolitical circumstances, the magnitude of a failure of the Doha negotiations would be just too severe.

I am nevertheless encouraged to see that since July all WTO Members, academia and civil society alike have expressed frustration and regret as we run the risk of losing a major – maybe unique — opportunity to integrate more vulnerable economies into international trade, and undermining their potential for contributing to sustainable growth an poverty alleviation. This is the first step towards getting the WTO car out of the repair garage where it finds itself now. We now need to answer the question of how and when to get it out. I hope members will use the coming weeks for quiet diplomacy, discreet bridge-building and better understanding of each others position that are necessary to conclude the negotiations.

Your input during the Forum will be a valuable contribution: it is not only welcomed, it is urgently needed. Without your ideas, it will be impossible to determine the WTO for the XXIst Century. The multilateral trading system belongs to you and therefore you should contribute to shape it. This is why I believe you came to the Public Forum in such high numbers. The presence of so many representatives of WTO Members, civil society, parliaments, the media and the academic world, strengthens my conviction that the willingness towards international co-operation and multilateralism is the only way forward.

I wish you a pleasant and fruitful Forum!

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