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Tailoring trade provisions to crisis to enhance resilience

Published 12 October 2021

Tailoring trade provisions to build greater resilience and crisis preparedness was the topic of the event hosted by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific (UNESCAP) at the World Trade Organization's Public Forum 2021. The session, held on 29 September, introduced the new 'UN Handbook on Provisions and Options for Trade in Times of Crisis and Pandemic' and featured Hinrich Foundation Senior Research Fellow Stephen Olson, who also contributed to the handbook.

The session consisted of a distinguished panel of experts from the Asian Trade Centre, CUTS, Georgetown University and Hinrich Foundation, moderated by Mr. Yann Duval, Chief of Trade Policy and Facilitation at ESCAP. All speakers had been involved in the Global Initiative on Model Provisions for Trade in Times of Crisis and Pandemic (IMP), launched in light of the insufficiency of the existing trade agreements in providing guidance for trade during crises.

As the main author, Ms. Katrin Kuhlmann (Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University and the President and Founder of the New Markets Lab) provided an overview of the Handbook. She introduced the methodology of the Handbook in providing ‘baseline, baseline+, discretionary and example/sample’ options for provisions that could be incorporated in RTAs to increase resilience in times of crisis. She presented example options from the Handbook, highlighting crucial issues responding to crises, including identifying essential goods and services, streamlining border processes, mutual recognition of SPS and TBT measures, compulsory licensing, and special and different treatment.

Mr. Stephen Olson (Senior Research Fellow at the Hinrich Foundation) stressed the reality that not all problems can be solved by trade agreements but recognized the Handbook as a substantial contribution to increase preparedness for trade in times of crisis. He noted 3 areas of priority: transparency, trade facilitation, and digital trade. He pointed out that transparency rules have not been treated seriously enough and that the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) only provides minimum standards while greater urgency requires higher levels of trade facilitation.

Ms. Deborah Elms (Founder and Executive Director of the Asian Trade Centre and Vice Chair of the Asia Business Trade Association) focused on digital trade. She pointed out that digital trade is even more crucial during crises. Ms. Elms underlined the risks of regulatory fragmentation in digital trade, which can undermine the promise of digital trade. She stressed that during crises, it is more vital than ever that we have digital trade rules, and we have digital trade rules that are consistent.

Mr. Bipul Chatterjee (Executive Director of CUTS International) underlined that MSMEs and consumers are more affected and vulnerable during the pandemic. He emphasized the need for developing alternative supply chains in times of crisis. He also underlined the need to prepare for climate crises.

In the Q&A, the discussions focused on implementation and capacity building issues. Panellists pointed to the need for better enforcement mechanisms of transparency provisions and the need to educate officials and consult private sectors in developing rules on digital trade. A future version of the Handbook may provide additional guidance on provisions to address the climate crisis.

Watch the full session here.

Access the full UN Handbook on Provisions and Options for Trade in Times of Crisis and Pandemic.

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