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Informal WTO ministerial meeting begins; Prabhu appeals for common ground to strengthen WTO

India has called this meet to explore options to reinvigorate the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Informal WTO ministerial meeting begins; Prabhu appeals for common ground to strengthen WTO

New Delhi: Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu on Tuesday appealed to the WTO members to identify common ground for strengthening the multi-lateral trade body amid challenges being faced by it following the deadlock at the Buenos Aires ministerial in December.

Delegates from as many as 52 countries, including the US and China, are participating in the informal meeting of the WTO called by India amidst increasing protectionism in global trade.

India has called this meet to explore options to reinvigorate the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Addressing the representatives, Prabhu said the meeting is happening at a time when WTO is facing multiple challenges including a deadlock which happened at Buenos Aires, Argentina, and systemic issues.

"Most of you present here would agree that the multilateral trading system has contributed significantly to economic growth, international trade, development and employment... If you value WTO and its contributions, then you should collectively agree to make all efforts to strengthen it. Inaction should not be choice for any one of us," he said.

There is an urgent need for reflection and political engagements on all such matters which are likely to have implications on the multilateral trading system, he added.

"Our meeting today is an initiative by India to facilitate free and frank exchange of views on all issues of common interest as well as seeking to address the challenges," Prabhu said.

The objective of this meeting is to reinvigorate the WTO and "we need to work together for achieving this objective," the minister said, adding, "let us find the ways to identify common ground for strengthening the organisation".

He called upon the participants to focus on issues like providing political guidance to further work in the WTO and the way forward on development.

He said that in the absence of guidance at the last ministerial conference, highest decision making body of the WTO, in Argentina, there is a need to provide collective political guidance on aspects such as matters where there are no work programmes.

The meeting comes against the backdrop of imposition of import duties on steel and aluminium by the US administration, and Washington dragging India to the WTO against export incentive programmes.

Although India has invited Pakistan for the meeting, it has decided to skip the conference.

WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo, who is here for the meet, has said: "We are facing many challenges in the WTO and outside. Trade environment globally is very risky at this point of time. We will try to have an open and honest conversation at the informal WTO meeting here".

The meeting would also discuss the issue of appointment of members of the appellate body of the WTO's dispute settlement body. The US has blocked appointment of these members, which would hamper its functioning.

The meeting has been convened by India in the aftermath of failure of the trade talks at Buenos Aires last year on account of differences among the members of the WTO.

The rich nations are forming groupings to prepare ground for pushing new issues such as investment facilitation, preparing rules for e-commerce, promoting gender equality and reducing subsidy on fisheries.

India has been keenly pushing agriculture issues at the WTO. It has also been raising its voice against bringing new issues, especially those which are not directly linked to trade, to the negotiating table.

The talks at the WTO's 11th ministerial conference collapsed after the US went back on its commitment to find a permanent solution to the public food stockholding issue, a key matter for India.

The four-day conference in Argentina, which ended without a ministerial declaration or any substantive outcome, did manage to make feeble progress on fisheries and e-commerce by agreeing to work programmes.