WTO Grapples With Telework Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

By Alex Lawson
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Law360 (April 17, 2020, 4:41 PM EDT) -- World Trade Organization members have not yet agreed on a strategy for conducting negotiations and making formal decisions remotely during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the WTO announced Friday.

In the first virtual meeting of all WTO ambassadors since the Geneva-based organization closed its doors more than a month ago, Director-General Roberto Azevedo urged all delegations to decide how the organization should operate until its in-person meetings can resume.

"We are facing the deepest recession of our lifetimes, so we cannot lose sight of the big picture," he said, according to a WTO readout of the virtual session. "But today's meeting is about smaller-scale practicalities — about how we can advance work in the weeks ahead."

Azevedo noted that the United Nations General Assembly recently agreed on a new process to adopt formal resolutions in writing while they are unable to convene in person. More than 50 delegations spoke at the session, but the WTO said that the members "did not have a common view" and that "more consultation would be needed."

Various WTO committees and negotiating groups have been holding meetings remotely since the organization shuttered after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19. But the adoption of formal decisions requires consensus from all WTO members, and it is not yet clear that delegations will agree to carry out that process over video conference or some similar forum.

WTO General Council Chairman David Walker at Friday's meeting urged members to get the WTO's house in order so they can more effectively address the economic challenges caused by the pandemic.

"As WTO members, it is important to give the signal that we are capable of working together to provide the kind of global answer which will be desperately needed as governments start planning for the aftermath of the crisis," Walker said.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Dennis Shea was among the ambassadors who spoke at Friday's meeting, saying that the U.S. supported holding informal meetings and exchanges virtually wherever it is "feasible and appropriate."

Regarding the issuing of binding decisions or proclamations, Shea warned against taking an across-the-board approach that may lead to more confusion. He added that the membership would need more time to decide how to proceed.

"We do not yet have a clear view on how we may be able to conduct other aspects of our work from remote locations, including those involving decision-making procedures," Shea said. "If we take a gradual approach in areas where there is consensus, we will gain important insights on how best to approach these other questions."

The WTO has projected that as a result of the coronavirus, overall global trade could plummet by as much as 32%, which would mark the sharpest dip in international commerce since World War II. Azevedo has led the call for governments to ensure that trade flows are kept as open as possible during the pandemic, particularly for medical and safety equipment that is crucial for helping to contain the spread of the virus.

G20 leaders have generally committed to free trade, but have also left room to restrict trade in certain circumstances, so long as they do so using "emergency measures" that are "targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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