WTO members agree surprise deal in Bali to cut barriers to global trade

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 6:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 4:26pm


A deal to ease barriers to global trade has been approved by the World Trade Organisation's 159 member economies.

The deal, the first they've reached in nearly two decades, keeping alive the possibility a broader agreement to create a level playing field for rich and poor countries can be reached.

WTO director general Roberto Azevedo shed tears during the summit's closing ceremony yesterday as he thanked host nation Indonesia, WTO member countries and his wife. "We have put the world back into the World Trade Organisation," he said. "For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered."

The centrepiece of the agreement was measures to simplify customs procedures and make them more transparent.

"Streamlining the passage of goods across borders by cutting red tape and bureaucracy could boost the world economy," the US Chamber of Commerce said.

The deal could boost global trade by US$1 trillion over time.

Trade ministers had come to the four-day WTO meeting on the resort island of Bali with little hope that an agreement would be reached after years of inertia in trade negotiations.

The talks were threatened at the eleventh hour when Cuba objected to the removal of a reference to the decades-long US trade embargo that Cuba wants lifted. India had also been an obstacle because of its vociferous objections to provisions that might endanger grain subsidies aimed at ensuring its poor get enough to eat.

WTO members gave developing nations a temporary dispensation from subsidy limits, shelving the issue for negotiations at a later time.

"This week has been about high-level diplomacy, long nights and considerable drama," said Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who chaired the meeting. "But it has also been about ensuring that the gains of the multilateral trading system reach our small businesses and our most vulnerable economies."

The deal keeps alive the WTO's broader Doha Round of trade negotiations, sometimes known as the development round because of sweeping changes in regulations, taxes and subsidies that would benefit low- income countries.

Azevedo said the WTO would spend the next year developing a fresh approach for moving forward with the Doha negotiations.

The idea behind the WTO is that if all countries play by the same trade rules, then all countries, rich or poor, will benefit.

But some critics say WTO rules may hinder countries from setting their own priorities in environmental protection, worker rights, food security and other areas.

And they say sudden reductions in import tariffs can wipe out industries, causing job losses in rich and poor countries.