WTO members debate extension of ban on e-commerce tariffs as talks approach finish line

Global ministerial talks in Abu Dhabi to set new global trade rules are officially due to conclude on Friday

The 13th WTO Ministerial Conference is being held in Abu Dhabi this week. Pawan Singh / The National
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Trade ministers from around the world debated the extension of a ban on e-commerce tariffs as the World Trade Organisation talks entered their final day on Friday.

An extension of a WTO ban on e-commerce tariffs is on the table for discussion after the so-called moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions was renewed in 2022 with an understanding that the extension comes with a deadline.

"Members will debate and I don't know where they will come out with it, whether it will be extended, stopped or whatever. Ever since it's been on at the WTO, they've been extending it every year or two and they're discussing how long this is going to continue and what they will do with it, so let's see," said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the WTO.

The four-day WTO talks entail setting new global rules for a range of key trade issues such as fishing subsidies and agriculture. The major progress made so far has been the formal accession of two new members to the Geneva-based body – East Timor and Comoros.

"We are working hard at the WTO for consensus in a way that everybody can come together and make the right trade-offs and compromises. Let's see. It's going reasonably well. But I am always cautious," the WTO chief said.

Also on the agenda during MC13 is the tough issue of reforms to the trade body's dispute settlement system and ways to overcome a four-year impasse on the appointment of new judges to its appellate body.

"I think we will come out with something reasonable. We did a lot of work in Geneva and the original mandate was to restore a fully functional dispute-settlement system by 2024, so we still have the rest of the year to deliver," Ms Okonjo-Iweala said.

Daniel Pruzin, head of the WTO's press section, told The National: "We've made tremendous progress but are obviously running out of time. There will be a check on the state of play amongst the facilitators early this afternoon."

The clock is ticking

On Wednesday, the WTO boss told members at a meeting of heads of delegations (HoDs) that while the clock was ticking, if the delegations kept working hard, a positive MC13 outcome was within reach and ministers should be able to go back home in time on the last day of the conference on Thursday.

The UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Trade and MC13 chair Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi said that it is time to set aside differences and work together for the common goal.

“This is what consensus, which I know all of you value, is all about," he said.

The minister also hoped that outcomes will be adopted at the formal MC13 closing ceremony.

Meanwhile, Espen Barth Eide, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, said that WTO member countries may not be able to finish the work on dispute settlement reform at MC13.

But, he added, they should be able to take stock of the meaningful progress that has been made, recognise that more work is needed, and instruct Geneva officials to accelerate their work to achieve a fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system accessible to all by 2024.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 10:21 AM