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Address by Renato Ruggiero, Director-General, World Trade Organization

Other WTO Ministerials:
Geneva, 1998
> Seattle, 1999



This is a very important meeting. If the completion of the Uruguay Round in Marrakesh closed an important chapter of economic history, this first Ministerial Conference in Singapore opens a new one. This is not a new chapter just because our organization has a new name or new sectors of responsibility or a new dispute settlement procedure. It is a new chapter in the sense that we have brought together 127 countries in a single undertaking and under a set of fundamental rules shared by all. It is a new chapter in the sense that our world of deepening integration and interdependence is demanding a new unity of vision.

The unity of industrialized, developing, least-developed and transition economies is the most valuable asset of this organization. It is because of this unity that membership in this organization is proving so attractive to the 28 candidates for accession, who include some of the world's largest economies as well as some of the smallest.

This unity is still a fragile one, however. We have to do all we can not just to maintain it but to strengthen it. This first Ministerial meeting has to send a very clear message to that effect. It can do so first of all by reaching agreement on the few issues which are still outstanding in terms of the Ministerial Declaration. Though they are few in number, their political sensitivity is undeniable. However, during the preparatory process we have been able to narrow the distances on each one of them to an extent that should greatly facilitate the task of Ministers in reaching overall agreement. Consensus is the rule of this organization; but consensus means first of all a shared responsibility. I know that every Minister here will participate in this effort for the good of the system and all of its Members.

We meet at a time which is one of transition in the trading system, from many points of view.

Firstly, because the process of global economic integration is moving on rapidly, and has indeed gone past the point of no return. We can see the meaning of globalization everywhere in our daily lives. Our task in the WTO is to accompany this process with rules and disciplines which are internationally agreed and accepted and able to be applied. This is the unique contribution that this organization can make to global prosperity and cooperation, and it is an important part of the reason why large and small nations, developed and developing alike, see it as so important.

Secondly, our system is changing because the world economy is changing. Information, know-how, ideas -- these are the new forces that are driving the global economy forward. This new economy will be different from the old because knowledge is both a resource and a product -- the new capital of economic growth, but capital which can be made accessible to all. In the economy of the twenty-first century, knowledge, like water, will be an essential resource. Our challenge is to extend and widen the global aquaducts -- to help to irrigate parched soil. For example, by liberalizing telecommunications we can help put a telephone in every village - something that can make the difference between life and death. By liberalizing information technologies we can educate our people on a scale unimaginable ten or twenty years ago, empowering them to compete in the global economy. This is the human dimension of globalization. This is why liberalization is the wellspring of progress for all the world's peoples.

And thirdly, because the way we operate within the multilateral trading system is itself in transition. Our negotiations can no longer be based only on traditional sectors or traditional assumptions.

Our success in the days ahead will not only be measured by our ability to see the future, but by our willingness to lead the way. This must be leadership by all countries, every government, each of us in this room. For some countries their ability to take a leading role in the trading system has been limited by resource constraints. We must work much harder in the future to give these countries a stronger voice.

This must also be leadership firmly rooted in public support. Gone too are the days when trade agreements were the affairs of negotiators or governments alone.

A world trading system which has the support of a knowledgeable and engaged global community will be in a far stronger position to manage the forces of globalization for everyone's benefit. This is why the presence here of so many representatives of non-governmental organizations, the business sector, and the media is so important. This Conference will, I am sure, send a clear message to them and to the world beyond. It should be a firm message about our determination to fight the marginalization of people and regions, and about the power of trade to promote the growth which allows governments to address problems of distribution. It should be a positive message about the relationship between trade and environmental policies. And it should be a reaffirmation that, since a basic purpose of our efforts is to raise living standards worldwide, trade liberalization helps create a more favourable climate for the observance of core labour standards.

Leadership in an interdependent world is more than ever the art of cooperation. It is about recognizing that our national interests are increasingly global interests and that our economic security increasingly hinges on the strength of others. If the multilateral trading system is to rise to the challenges of this rapidly changing reality, we will all have to give up old habits of thought and patterns of behaviour and develop together some new approaches to negotiating mutually beneficial rules and commitments in sectors where products can cross frontiers in a fraction of a second. If we always seat ourselves on opposite sides of the negotiating table, then consensus can become a codeword for gridlock.

Our agenda, at this conference and beyond, is a very complex one. We have to arrive at an equilibrium which respects the common desire to emphasize the implementation of what has already been agreed. Implementing the 27,000 pages of agreements undertaken by all the Members of this organization in the few years ahead is a major endeavour, and one that we have only just begun. It would be wrong to imagine that implementation does not also mean keeping up the liberalizing momentum. I want to pay tribute to the efforts of all Members in this respect, but particularly to the very great efforts that are being made by developing and transition economies and the enormous efforts of the least-developed countries.

The report of the General Council which Ambassador Rossier has just presented to you is solid evidence of the scale of what has been achieved in the past two years -- as well as the challenges we still face -- in the implementation process. Its importance is underlined in the WTO Annual Report which I am presenting to you. The Annual Report notes the evolution of trade policies of developed, developing and transition-economy Members in the direction of liberal trade regimes, greater resort to tariff-based measures and transparency. These policies represent the surest means to expand the participation of all countries in today's increasingly dynamic international trade. In turn, the Annual Report also shows how trade continues to be a powerful engine of growth: global trade again grew last year by one of the fastest rates in a decade and now exceeds US$6 trillion for the first time, with the stimulus this represents for job creation worldwide.

The continuation of this virtuous circle is in your hands as you guide the WTO's work programme - which has already in large part been agreed. And beyond this, you have the challenge of agreeing on liberalization in information technology products and of giving the momentum to the negotiations on basic telecommunications that will help ensure their successful conclusion by the 15 February deadline. In the light of what I said a moment ago, the importance of these agreements cannot be overestimated. These are sectors where we are truly trading into the future.

Other major priorities for 1997 are to conclude the equally vital negotiations in financial services, and to combine our strong commitment with that of the candidates to conclude -- or make real progress towards concluding -- some of the major accession negotiations. I also sincerely urge all member governments to find a rapid and positive solution to one outstanding implementation issue of great importance - the formal establishment of the WTO Secretariat as a separate entity, in line with the decisions taken at Marrakesh.

Lastly, I would hope to see from all the Ministers present at this meeting, as a signal of your intention to hold a high-profile celebration of the 50th anniversary of the multilateral trading system, which falls at the beginning of 1998. It would be a unique occasion not just to celebrate one of the major international success stories of our time but also to look ahead into the fast-moving prospects of the new century.