• WTO report shows members moving to facilitate imports even as trade restrictions remain high


Remarks by DG Azevêdo

Good morning everyone.

Thank you, Ambassador Aspelund for your introduction.

I am pleased to join you today to take stock of recent trade policy developments.

You will all have seen my report circulated to members on 10 July, in document WT/TPR/OV/W/14.  

The report covers major developments in trade policy from mid-October 2019 to mid-May 2020. It is a precursor to the Director-General’s annual report on this subject, which will be released later in the year. The new report includes specific sections on measures taken in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since this exercise started in 2009, it has become an important transparency tool for members.

I should reiterate here that this report is purely factual. It has no legal effect on the rights and obligations of WTO members. It does not seek to pass any judgement on whether a trade measure is protectionist or not. Nor does it question the explicit right of members to adopt certain trade measures, especially in the challenging context of the ongoing pandemic.

The overall goal of this exercise is to reinforce transparency and predictability in the trading system.

Transparency reduces uncertainty and fosters trust. Not only is it important in an institutional sense, it also matters greatly for policy makers, businesses and consumers. Everyone stands to benefit from this.   

The information included in the report reflects inputs submitted by members and observers as well as information from other official and public sources. I'd like to thank all delegations that participated in this exercise.  

For this mid-year report, 87 members replied to my initial request for information. This represents about 53 per cent of the membership, covering about 96 per cent of world imports. This is higher than the participation rate for the last mid-year report, which is encouraging.

However, participation in the verification process continues to be uneven. In several instances, the Secretariat received only partial responses. The current context of course explains some of this, but in light of the importance of this exercise, we must endeavour to ensure that it is as accurate, inclusive and comprehensive as possible.

Before going on to the main findings of the report, I just want to say a few words about its overall context.

As I alluded to earlier, this report was prepared against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely disrupted the global economy.

On top of this, trade tensions continue to cast shadows over the global trading environment, and had been doing so even before the pandemic. I should note, however, that we have also sometimes seen welcome and important attempts to de-escalate these tensions.

So what does the report tell us?

Excluding COVID-19-related measures, WTO members and observers implemented 107 trade and trade-related measures during the review period from mid-October to mid-May. These included 51 new measures aimed at facilitating trade and 56 new trade-restrictive measures.

The trade coverage of the new import-restrictive measures implemented was estimated at 423.1 billion dollars. This is the third-highest value since October 2012, when these reports started including trade coverage figures.

Import-restrictive measures are accumulating over time. Taken together, all such measures implemented since 2009 and still in force now affect an estimated 8.7 per cent of world imports (1.7 trillion dollars). This should be of concern to all of us.

On a more positive note, the trade coverage of new import-facilitating measures implemented during the review period was estimated at 739.4 billion dollars, the second-highest figure since October 2012. This is, of course, a welcome development.

Now let me say a word about trade and trade-related measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, they account for around 70 per cent of the total number of measures recorded in this report.

In the early stages of the pandemic, we saw an increase in trade-restricting measures, primarily for exports of medical supplies. That said, by the end of the current review period in mid-May, around 28 per cent of the COVID-19 specific trade restrictions had already been reversed.

Looking at the totality of the 256 pandemic-related trade measures identified in the report, 147 facilitated trade while 109 restricted trade.  This means that around 57 per cent of all COVID-19 related measures were trade facilitating.

In addition, WTO members and observers have implemented a large number of emergency support measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The goal of these measures is to soften the pandemic-induced economic downturn and mitigate its social and humanitarian ramifications.

Regular monitoring of support measures introduced in the context of the pandemic will be important for members. Transparency will enable members to track the evolution and effects of such measures as the world exits the health crisis and enters a recovery period.

We will continue to monitor COVID-related developments, including in the end-of-year trade monitoring report. 

Now, let me turn to the other findings of the report.

With respect to trade remedies, the report recorded an average of 25.3 initiations per month during the review period. This monthly average is slightly higher than the average for the last eight years. At the same time, the monthly average of trade remedy terminations was the lowest over the same time span.

Regarding trade in services, the report shows that many trade-facilitating measures were implemented during the review period. In addition, of the 99 services measures related to COVID-19 adopted by WTO members and observers, most appeared to be trade facilitating.

However, a number of new policies adopted during the review period appeared to be trade restrictive, especially in areas such as foreign investment and areas considered strategic or linked to national security.

On other fronts, the report provides evidence of members’ continued commitment to notifying SPS and TBT measures, as well as their extensive use of the review process in the Committee on Agriculture.

The report also outlines numerous trade issues and concerns other than SPS and TBT measures that members have raised in WTO bodies. On the positive side, this illustrates the value of WTO committees as constructive platforms for members to address concerns. However, some of these concerns had already been raised in previous monitoring periods, suggesting persistent and unresolved issues.

The report also highlights developments in intellectual property, with members continuing to diversify and fine-tune their IP domestic frameworks.

On general economic support measures, Secretariat research indicates that members continue to implement such measures as part of their overall trade policy.

However, there seems to be a general reluctance to provide information on this front. Last December, I urged members in this body to provide the Secretariat with clearer guidance on how best to take forward this report’s work on general economic support measures. This point will probably become even more pertinent as the line between pandemic-related emergency support and general economic support becomes blurrier over time.

So these are some of the principal findings that I wanted to highlight today. I hope that this snapshot provides some food for thought for your discussion this morning.

And there is no room for complacency. Keeping international trade and investment flows open will be critical to rebuild economies, businesses and livelihoods around the world. A strong recovery will require determined efforts and leadership by WTO members collectively. We have to redouble our efforts to maintain the transparency and predictability of the trading system.

So let me thank the large number of delegations that have responded to our call for information — including regarding the measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I also want to thank the Secretariat for their excellent work in putting this report together, and in keeping our dedicated COVID-19 webpage updated.

This is my last meeting with you in this format, so I want to say that it has been a great pleasure to support these monitoring efforts as Director-General. I encourage you to keep up your efforts on this front.

Wherever I go, you can count on me to keep advocating for this essential global good.

Thank you very much.




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