The Ottawa Group describes itself as a small, representative group of 13 WTO members that supports reforms to address challenges placing stress on the multilateral trading system. The 23 November virtual gathering was chaired by Canada’s Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, Mary Ng.

DDG Wolff’s remarks were drawn from the longer text below:​

It is a pleasure to join you at this Ottawa Group Ministerial Meeting.  I was to have been in Ottawa in March this year for your Ministerial Meeting just when the dimensions of the COVID 19 pandemic where becoming clear, causing the cancellation of that meeting.  Now virtual meetings are commonplace in this post COVID 19 First Wave world.

 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized at the G20 Leaders meeting this past weekend the importance he ascribed to the work that you do in this group on WTO reform.

For today’s meeting, I was asked to provide an optimistic but not unrealistic view of what steps could be taken during the next two years to improve the WTO – and to put before you ideas on what the Ottawa Group can contribute to achieving desired results.

Briefly, I provide a menu of seven options for you to consider.  Each extends beyond continuation of the status quo.

  • First, an observation: the game must be in play for key players to conclude that they have to join. If negotiations are not under way, there may be a substantial delay in attracting participation.
    • Declarations, such as on trade and health, should be turned into formal proposals as soon as possible and should be embraced by all WTO members. 
    • And if some Members won’t come along or seek to delay – a joint initiative is a practical way to proceed and could then be launched as a priority.  The time of testing should not be so long as to make a response to the pandemic arrive too late to be responsive to the current crisis. 
  • Second, Members can ask the WTO Secretariat for and receive support for evaluations of aspects of WTO reform. For example, on trade and health, Members can —
    • Request the Secretariat to upgrade its COVID-19-related trade monitoring activities to collect and publish the best information available, not relying solely on notifications and verification.  (This would be a more comprehensive and in-depth activity than that which takes place at present, which in itself was an upgrade from pre-COVID monitoring.)
    • Request the Secretariat to work with the WHO, relevant UN agencies and other stakeholders, to highlight trade issues affecting vaccine production and availability, and to propose ways to eliminate obstacles. (This would go beyond existing activities and result in proposals put to the WTO Membership).
  • Third, Members can
    • Propose that the Director General convene a small, representative, ambassador-level group of Friends of Trade and Health to identify how the trading system has performed during the pandemic and to issue preliminary conclusions and recommendations for useful changes in approach within a short, defined timeline.
    • Propose that the WTO Secretariat embark now upon the necessary supporting work without delay.
    • Propose that the Director General constitute other “Friends” groups to advance consideration of institutional reform and other issues of current importance, and providing possible solutions, such as with respect to the relationship to current and future WTO Agreements of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the disciplining of fossil fuel subsidies, addressing border adjustments likely with the adoption of carbon taxes, assessing the impact on markets of subsidies and other state interventions, employing trade to reduce income inequality, making the WTO more effective for economic development within and among Member economies, improving the trading system with respect to women in trade, providing WTO support for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, and more generally strategic foresight. 
      • G20 Members clearly want to enhance preparedness for future pandemics and other crises.  Flexible groups with appropriate balance but able to be nimble and responsive are one way to supplement but not supplant the work of committees and joint statement initiatives (JSIs).
    • Propose that an ad hoc horizontal mechanism be created promptly in the event of crises to address – in real time – trade measures that are of concern.  The mechanism, similar to trade policy reviews, but not limited to any single WTO Member’s measures, trade restrictive and trade liberalizing, should be constituted immediately for the current pandemic and economic recovery measures.
  • Fourth, Members can
    • Propose that the signatories of the Pharmaceutical Agreement providing for duty-free trade be updated (last done in 2010),  that major nonsignatories join and that essential medical supplies be added to the coverage.
    • Propose that the signatories of the Information Technology Agreement review and update its coverage, including adding medical equipment.
    • Propose that negotiations on the Environmental Goods Agreement re-start in earnest now, with the addition of services.
  • Fifth, Members can propose that the new Director General offer her good offices to bring the major interested parties together to work on a solution for dispute settlement reform. 
    • In the meantime, to protect the integrity of the dispute settlement system, and by extension, the WTO as a whole, , Members could propose that access to the WTO panel system be conditioned on parties agreeing in advance to be bound by the result, either by accepting that a panel decision will be final, or through an agreed alternative appeal mechanism. In the absence of this measure, panels would in effect be issuing unauthorized advisory opinions.  If a Member refused to agree to a binding outcome, it would forfeit its right to invoke the panel process in future cases. This proposal should optimally be adopted by all Members.
  • Sixth, while Members should press to move the current WTO agenda forward, new open plurilateral WTO Plus Agreements (joint initiatives) can be initiated where necessary to make progress.  
  • Seventh, leading by example, Members should implement as much as possible unilaterally.  If reciprocity is deemed necessary, the actions taken can expire within a fixed timeframe

All too many observers state that the WTO has become irrelevant. Interest in the business community and among civil society organizations is best stimulated by actions taken by Members on subjects that those who engage in global commerce and those affected by it find to be important.  Heightened engagement of the WTO s Members is essential to the WTO fulfilling the role that its founders clearly intended.  The WTO must be effective as the forum where deliberations, negotiations and dispute settlement, as well as administration of multilateral trading system, take place.

Thank you.

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