Oceania's pride of place in global trade talks
by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General, World Trade Organization
As the world--and the World Trade Organization (WTO)--intensifies negotiations on the future of commerce, sustainability, and prosperity for all, members are keen to listen to the voice of the Pacific Islands.
In preparing for my upcoming visit to the region, I came across the important writings of Oceania's beloved son, Epeli Hau'ofa, who advises against a narrow "economistic" view of the region: "The world of Oceania is not small; it is huge and growing bigger every day." This wisdom also rings loud and clear at the WTO.
At our 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in June, 164 member governments--including those of Pacific Island countries--came together to forge the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. The Agreement, the first at the WTO with environmental sustainability at its core, will curb harmful subsidies that deplete global fish stocks.
As experienced guardians of the world's largest ocean, the Pacific Island countries played a crucial role in shaping the final agreement. The process was arduous and long, but the results showed that everyone, from the smallest to the largest, can have their voice heard at the WTO.
Moving forward, we need the region's leadership and flexibility, as we start the second wave of negotiations to strengthen and deepen the Agreement's disciplines. These negotiations, greatly anticipated by all members, will tackle subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing while recognizing the special needs of developing countries. Because the WTO gives all countries an equal say, Pacific Island countries will again have the opportunity to shape the outcome.
The Agreement will deliver its benefits only upon deposit of instruments of acceptance by two-thirds of WTO members. To stem the decline in the health of our oceans, I call on Pacific Island countries to lead the way in urgently ratifying the agreement in the next several months. There is no time to waste.
Elsewhere in the WTO, work is also ongoing to tackle major challenges faced by Pacific Island countries: climate change, economic marginalization, the digital divide and more. Discussions are intensifying around how to future-proof economies in the face of environmental shocks. In the Pacific region, climate adaptation and disaster recovery are not just buzzwords but a lived reality. Groups of WTO members have launched initiatives to reduce plastics waste—a scourge of the Pacific region—and to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption. I welcome the participation of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu in these initiatives. We will benefit from their guidance and experiences as we tackle these issues.
At the COP27 Climate Change Conference in Egypt earlier this month, the WTO's message was clear: trade is part of the solution to climate change. Trade is both an adaptation and mitigation instrument, so trade policies should be integrated into the global response to climate change to support the movement to net zero by 2050 and to support countries to adapt. This approach includes disseminating the technologies needed to cope with climate change at the lowest cost through open trade flows, moving essential products quickly in times of crisis, and using the WTO to establish policy coherence in trade, development, and sustainability. Trade is a tool for climate resilience, and we must wield it.
Digital connectivity was an important factor in economic resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdown measures limited person-to-person contact. At MC12, WTO members agreed to maintain their practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions. This action will preserve the enabling environment the WTO provides to the global digital economy and the millions of businesses and jobs that depend on it. Already, many Pacific Island countries are leading the way in harnessing digital technology. More work is needed at the WTO to keep pace with the fast-evolving e-commerce sector and to ensure that no country is left behind.
From addressing the sustainability of our oceans, to doing our part for the climate, and supporting digital connectivity, the WTO aims to play an even greater role in tackling the most pressing challenges of the Oceania region. It should not come as a surprise that much of our current and future work can support the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. The WTO is committed to being part of that journey and welcomes this opportunity to be a meaningful partner in the region's development and future prosperity.
Epeli Hau'ofa put it best when he wrote: "Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Oceania is us." Indeed, you are us, your opportunities and challenges are our own, and the world would do well to listen.
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