Explainer: The 18 WTO plurilaterals and ‘joint-statement initiatives’

Brand new, decades old, or in between? Exclusive or applying to all members? Proper negotiations or just talk? Which is which, and what are the subjects?

Plurilaterals: for some the way forward, for others controversial

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 3, 2022 | UPDATED MARCH 24, 2022

As World Trade Organization (WTO) members struggle to reach consensus on numerous issues, many see talks among “the willing” as the way to modernise the organisation and in many cases to update its trade rules. But the approach is controversial.

These talks and resulting decisions among only some WTO members are called “plurilateral” to distinguish them from “multilateral” activities and agreements among the WTO’s whole membership.


Continue reading or use these links to jump down the page or to find more information:

EXPLANATIONS

Present WTO plurilaterals explained (with jargon buster) | Not new | Attaching to the rule-book | New type of mandate needed

THE 18 CURRENT PLURILATERALS

Plurilateral agreements from the 1986–94 Uruguay Round
1. Trade in civil aircraft (rules and MFN commitments) | 2. Government procurement (rules and non-MFN commitments) | 3. Pharmaceuticals Agreement (MFN commitments)

Plurilateral agreements since 1995
4. Services: movement of natural persons (MFN commitments) | 5. Services: basic telecommunications (MFN commitments) | 6. Financial services (MFN commitments) | 7. Information Technology [products] Agreement (MFN commitments)

Suspended plurilateral talks since 1995
8. Services: maritime transport (from 1995, suspended 1996) | 9. Environmental Goods Agreement (from 2014, stalled 2016)

Plurilateral (joint-statement) negotiations and discussions from 2017
10. Services: domestic regulation (joint-statement initiative (MFN commitments referencing rules) | 11. E-commerce and digital trade (aim: rules and commitments, unclear whether MFN) | 12. Investment facilitation for development (aim: rules) | 13. Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) (discussion, recommendations, declarations) | 14. Gender equality and women in trade (discussion)

Plurilateral (joint-statement) discussions from 2021
15. Trade and environmental sustainability (structured discussion) | 16. Plastic pollution and environmentally sustainable trade (discussion) | 17. Fossil fuel subsidies (discussion for now, rules and commitments possible)

Dispute settlement
18. Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement (MPIA) (temporary procedures for appealing dispute rulings)


The Tokyo Round “codes”


OTHER INFORMATION SOURCES
WTO website (sparse) | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals (by far the most comprehensive)

See also
Andrew Stoler, “Joint Statement Initiatives” and Progress in the WTO System, Adelaide University’s Institute for International Trade
L. Alan Winters and Bernard Hoekman, WTO reform: Plurilateral Agreements, UK Trade Policy Observatory


EXPLANATIONSBack to top
Present WTO plurilaterals explainedBack to top

The purpose of plurilateral talks is not to exclude others, but to be able to go ahead while others are unready or reluctant. The hope is that everyone will eventually sign on, as has happened with several plurilaterals in the past.


JARGON BUSTER

Plurilateral — (in the WTO) an agreement or activity only among some WTO members. Contrasts with multilateral — involving the whole WTO membership.

Schedules — lists of commitments and timetables for phasing them in. The commitments include reducing or scrapping tariffs and agricultural subsidies, and easing conditions for access to markets eg, for services and government procurement.

Most-favoured-nation (MFN) treatment — non-discrimination between trading partners. For example, a country’s commitment to lower or scrap a tariff applies equally to all WTO members: they are all equally “most favoured”. This is the default in WTO rules.

Non-MFN — discriminating in favour of one or more WTO members, and excluding some WTO members. If a country scraps duty only on imports from other participants in a plurilateral agreement, that is non-MFN.

Open plurilateral — a plurilateral agreement that benefits all WTO members equally, including those that are not part of the agreement, ie, “MFN”, usually via “schedules” listing each country’s individual commitments.

Closed plurilateral — a plurilateral agreement applying only among the participants, not the rest of the WTO’s membership, ie “non-MFN”. In particular, the commitments listed in “schedules”, such as duty-free imports, only apply to trade within the plurilateral group. Participation in the group is NOT closed. Other countries can negotiate to join.

There are essentially two types of plurilateral activity now in the WTO:

  • Agreements involving negotiations, either concluded or with conclusion intended in the future, with new rights and obligations.

  • Discussions not necessarily leading to negotiations on new rights and obligations. The initial purpose is to clarify concepts and policy issues. They could lead to better understanding, and perhaps non-binding policy recommendations. Whether that leads to new rules can be discussed later.

For agreements to be formally added to the WTO rule-book, two approaches are used based on whether they exclude other members or are applied without discrimination.

One approach is for each participant to treat all other WTO members equally, applying most-favoured nation (MFN) treatment to them all. This is sometimes called “open”.

When non-participants also benefit from MFN rules or commitments, the deal creates free riders and therefore usually requires a critical mass of participants before they agree to go ahead.

The other is for each participant to apply the new rules or commitments only to other participants (non-MFN, in other words discriminating in favour of fellow-participants).

This is sometimes called “closed”, but only in the sense of being applied exclusively to participants.

Participation is not “closed”: countries can negotiate to join the group.

The two approaches depend on how the new agreement handles the two components of WTO deals: the rules (the text of an agreement), and the commitments under those rules. These commitments are in documents called “schedules”.

What a world trade agreement looks like
Rules and commitments: the two main components of WTO agreements — rules (the book on the left) and schedules of commitments (the rest of the paper). Click the image to see it full size

The rules create obligations. In plurilateral deals, they will always be “closed” in the sense that only participating countries are obliged to comply.

On the other hand, the commitments are not the same for everyone. Each country (or each WTO member) has its own schedules of commitments listing ceilings that it has agreed for tariffs on thousands of products and for agricultural subsidies, and the access to its services markets that it guarantees.

Each country’s commitments create rights for other countries.

Barely 500 pgaes: the WTO rule-book
Barely 500 pages: the WTO rule-book

In plurilateral deals, a participant’s schedules of commitments are “open” if they apply to all WTO members without discrimination (MFN), for example improving access to the participant’s markets.

But they are “closed” if the access is only offered to other participants (non-MFN), as is the case with the Government Procurement Agreement.

Each country’s commitments run to hundreds of pages. The total for the whole membership’s schedules is tens of thousands of pages.

By comparison, the rule book (containing the legal texts of the agreements) is barely 500 pages.

Not newBack to top

The list of plurilaterals shows they are not new. Andrew Stoler (a former US negotiator and deputy WTO director-general) argues they even date back to 1950s. One major round of negotiations from the 1970s resulted only in plurilateral agreements.

This was the 1973–75 Tokyo Round, negotiated under the WTO’s predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It produced nine agreements (listed below), at that time called “codes” because only some GATT signatories agreed to apply the new rules.

Five of the Tokyo Round codes are now fully multilateral WTO agreements as a result of the 1986–94 Uruguay Round negotiations, which also created the WTO. Two are still plurilateral and remain in the package of WTO agreements. Two (on beef and dairy products) were temporarily plurilateral and were scrapped in 1997 as they transitioned into what was at that time two new sets of rules, the WTO agreements on agriculture and sanitary and phytosanitary measures (food safety, animal and plant health).

One new plurilateral agreement was negotiated and concluded in the Uruguay Round: on duty-free imports of pharmaceutical products.

Since the Uruguay Round agreements took effect in 1995, five new plurilateral agreements have been struck — six, if the two agreements on financial services are counted separately. All but one are in services. The exception is tariff-free trade in information technology products.

A number of other subjects are now being discussed plurilaterally, several of them a long way away from becoming proper negotiations to produce new rules. They are all the result of statements issued jointly by part of the WTO membership in 2017 and 2021. For this reason, they are also called “joint-statement initiatives (JSIs)”.

The WTO website is cautious about how it handles these plurilaterals and joint initiatives. Some topics have their own web pages; some do not, although the subjects are covered in WTO news stories.

The WTO clearly wants to promote members’ achievements in plurilateral activities, but hesitates to do it systematically, perhaps because of controversy among members.

India, South Africa and some other countries oppose the approach. They say plurilateral agreements violate the WTO’s multilateral nature, even though pluriaterals have been around in the system at least since the 1960s and 70s.

But these critics are a small minority of WTO members. At the time of writing, the countries that have shunned the post-2017 plurilaterals are no more than 16 out of 164 WTO members, about 10%. Each of the remaining 148 members (90%) participates in at least one of these plurilaterals.

Attaching to the rule-bookBack to top

Can the objecting minority block plurilaterals? Decision-making in the WTO is by consensus, so even a single dissenting country can block a formal decision. This matters if a set of plurilateral rules is to be added to the WTO rule-book.

Agreements’ structure: the Trade Facilitation Agreement is an amendment to Annex 1A (goods). A fisheries subsidies agreement would be too
Agreements’ structure: attaching plurilateral rules under Annex 4 probably needs WTO consensus (Click the image to see it full size)

The normal way to do that is to follow the examples of the Civil Aircraft and Government Procurement agreements. They are attached to the main WTO Agreement under Annex 4, which is specifically for plurilaterals. And that route needs consensus agreement among the whole WTO membership because technically it amends the WTO Agreement.

(For various legal reasons, Hamid Mamdouh has proposed attaching the new plurilaterals to the WTO rule-book by creating a new Annex 5.)


I disagree with their assertion that ‘even changes to schedules cannot be made unilaterally, as other members have the right to protect the existing balance of rights and obligations’. This is true if you want to make your schedule more trade restrictive but not if you unilaterally modify your schedule to make it more liberal.

Andrew Stoler on the India-South Africa objections

Adding or updating schedules of commitments is different. Those that do not discriminate (MFN) are unilateral.

So long as each country improves on commitments already made, which is the purpose after all, no other member can block it.

Commitments that do discriminate (non-MFN) are more complicated.

If they are attached to plurilateral rules that have already been accepted (under Annex 4), then there is no problem. That’s the case with the Government Procurement Agreement.

But if the rules are not attached under Annex 4 (or anywhere else), then non-MFN commitments would have nowhere to go.

Members have searched for creative ways of making plurilateral agreements officially legal. For domestic regulation in services, new rules were written into a “reference paper” that is not an official legal text. But the participants’ non-discriminatory schedules of commitments refer to the paper, giving it an indirect legal status.

In the negotiations on an agreement on digital trade, there will be rules and commitments. Participants have not indicated yet what route they will take for the new rules and whether the commitments will discriminate or not.

New type of mandateBack to top needed

Nevertheless, opposition from the dissenting countries means that the new plurilaterals differ from the older ones in a procedural way.

The older plurilaterals had multilateral mandates at the start, even if the the deals ended up as plurilateral because some countries could not sign up.

The mandates of the newer ones are plurilateral from the outset, and are not even recognised multilaterally. They are initiatives based entirely on the (plurilateral) joint statements.

THE 18 CURRENT PLURILATERALSBack to top

In total, 18 plurilateral agreements, negotiations, or discussions currently exist in the WTO. Two are suspended, meaning 16 are active to varying degrees. How they are handled in the WTO legal structure varies.

The numbers of participants here are correct at the time of writing. Participation can be fluid. The approach used is based on this technical note. These numbers may be updated periodically, but the most up-to-date information should be available via the links.

Rules, schedules of commitments or both: How the present plurilateral agreements have been inserted into the WTO legal structure (Click the image to see it full size)
Rules, schedules of commitments or both: How the present plurilateral agreements have been inserted into the WTO legal structure. The intellectual property agreement does not have schedules of commitments. (Click the image to see it full size)

Inherited and new 1994
Plurilateral agreements from the 1986–94 Uruguay RoundBack to top

Two are inherited and updated from the 1973–75 Tokyo Round. One came from the Uruguay Round itself.


1. TRADE IN CIVIL AIRCRAFT 33 WTO members
AgreementRules and non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, 1980; in the WTO 1994.

Eliminates import duties on all aircraft, other than military aircraft, as well as on all other products covered by the agreement — civil aircraft engines and their parts and components, all components and sub-assemblies of civil aircraft, and flight simulators and their parts and components.

The rules are under Annex 4 of the WTO Agreement; the schedules are attached to members’ commitments on goods under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). (See the chart above.)

Legal stuff: Agreement text | Practice and jurisprudence | official documents (TCA/*)

WTO website


2. GOVERNMENT PROCUREMENT48 WTO members
AgreementRules and exclusive (non-MFN) commitments only applying to suppliers in other participating countries, 1979; in the WTO, updated 1994, 2012

Participants open their government procurement markets to each other for goods and services (including construction services). Non-participants are excluded. The agreement has two parts: rules (the text of the agreement) and participants’ (non-MFN) schedules of commitments on how much each has opened its procurement market to other participants. Both are inserted into the WTO Agreement via Annex 4 — the schedules are attached to the Government Procurement Agreement itself. (See the chart above.)

In addition to the 48 participating WTO members, 35 WTO members and observers are also observers in the Government Procurement Committee, 11 of the members negotiating to join the agreement.

Legal stuff: 2012 agreement text | 2012 agreement and other related legal texts | Schedules of commitments | official documents (GPA/*) | notifications on national legislation | database

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


3. PHARMACEUTICALS AGREEMENT35 WTO members
Agreement — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, 1994, expanded 1996, 1998, 2007, 2010

Duty-free imports (tariffs, other duties and charges) for pharmaceutical products and the substances used to produce them. This is permanently “bound” legally in the WTO through non-discriminating (MFN) schedules of commitments on goods, attached to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). (See the chart above.)

Originally negotiated in the 1986–94 Uruguay Round, the commitments are only made by Canada, the EU, Japan, Macao, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

Officially this is the 1994 Agreement on Trade in Pharmaceutical Products (the Pharmaceutical Agreement, the Pharma Agreement). It used to be called a “zero-for-zero” agreement, which is misleading because it implies reciprocity whereas the deal is non-discriminatory. “Zero-for-zero” could be interpreted as requiring a critical mass of participants.

The WTO Secretariat has compiled an “indicative” list of covered products: part 1 (pdf), part 2 (pdf), part 3 (Excel spreadsheet).

● Legal stuff: 1994 text and clarification | Updates 1996 (and annexed database file), 1998 (and annexed Zip file), 2007 (details not available), 2010 (details not available) | official documents — all market access (goods) documents G/MA/*; market access working documents G/MA/W/* | tariff databases

WTO website


Since 1995
Plurilateral agreements since 1995Back to top

All but one of these are in services. The ones from the 1990s were unfinished business from the multilateral Uruguay Round. So, in a sense, was the 2021 services domestic regulation deal, except the mandate was new and plurilateral


4. SERVICES PROTOCOL: MOVEMENT OF NATURAL PERSONS21 WTO members
Agreement — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, 1995

Further improvements on commitments made in the Uruguay Round, mostly providing access opportunities for independent foreign professionals, in a number of business sectors and extend the permitted duration of stay.

The upgraded commitments are attached to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) via a legal document called a “protocol” (one of four post-1994 services protocols), which entered into force on January 30, 1996. (See the chart above.)

The only participants were: Australia, Canada, the then EU-15 (ie 16 WTO members), India, Norway and Switzerland.

Whether these “protocol” agreements in services are “plurilateral” is also debatable. Only some WTO members had schedules of specific commitments in services at the end of the (multilateral) Uruguay Round and one reason for these negotiations was to increase the number. However there were improvements in content as well, which can justify describing them as “plurilateral”.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 1994 multilateral ministerial decision | Third Protocol (where the schedules are attached) | official documents (on services as a whole, S/*)

WTO website


5. SERVICES PROTOCOL: BASIC TELECOMMUNICATIONS69 WTO members
Agreement — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, linked to rules in a “Reference Paper”, 1997

The Uruguay Round commitments in telecommunications were mainly on value-added services. The new commitments in 1997 were on basic services. Like all services commitments, they are attached to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) via a protocol (one of four post-1994 services protocols), and are applied equally to all WTO members (MFN). (See the chart above.)

These negotiations also resulted in a Reference Paper, a set of rules or regulatory principles on basic telecommunications, for participants to consider adopting in their schedules of commitments. These included competition safeguards, interconnection guarantees, transparent licensing processes, and the independence of regulators. The Reference Paper is not an official WTO document.

“By the February 1997 deadline, 63 of the 69 governments submitting schedules included commitments on regulatory disciplines, with 57 of these committing to the Reference Paper in whole or with a few modifications,” this WTO explanation says.

See “movement of natural persons” (above) on how these talks are plurilateral — the fact that these are commitments in basic telecommunications also makes them new.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 1994 multilateral ministerial decision | Reference Paper | Fourth Protocol (where the schedules are attached) | Schedules | official documents (on services as a whole, S/*)

WTO website


6. SERVICES PROTOCOL: FINANCIAL SERVICES45 (1995), 52 (1997) WTO members
Agreement — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, 1995, 1997

Further improvements on commitments made in the Uruguay Round, both on access to financial services markets and on exemptions from non-discrimination (MFN). The numbers of participants is complicated because countries that initially agreed might not have ratified the protocols — the legal texts used to attach the schedules to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). (See the chart above.) Two of the four post-1994 services protocols are on financial services.

See “movement of natural persons” (above) on how these talks are plurilateral. Details are here and in this press release.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 1994 multilateral ministerial decision | Protocols (where the schedules are attached): Second (1995), Fifth (1997) | official documents (on services as a whole, S/*)

WTO website


7. INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY [PRODUCTS] AGREEMENT82 WTO members
Agreement — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, 1996, 2015

Duty-free trade in information technology products, originally agreed in 1996, expanded in 2015, and explained here. One of the issues is how to determine which products are in this category when they could have many different uses. Duty-free trade is achieved legally by adding new schedules of commitments on tariffs under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). (See the chart above.) The agreements were announced in non-binding ministerial declarations.

Legal stuff: 1996 Ministerial Declaration | Schedules | Implementation status (searches WTO documents online) | official documents (G/IT/*)

WTO website


Suspended
Suspended plurilateral talks since 1995Back to top

8. SERVICES: MARITIME TRANSPORT
Negotiation — Presumably Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments. From 1995, suspended 1996

This was the fourth heading under services where WTO members had agreed to continue with unfinished business at the end of the Uruguay Round. They had set a deadline of June 1996 but there was no agreement and the talks were suspended. If agreement had been reached, the legal route would probably have been the same as the other services protocols and schedules of commitments.

The subject then became part of the broader services negotiations that began in 2000, but these have failed to conclude.

See “movement of natural persons” (above) on how these talks are plurilateral.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 1994 multilateral ministerial decision | official documents (on services as a whole, S/*)

WTO website


9. ENVIRONMENTAL GOODS AGREEMENT46 WTO members
Negotiation — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments. From 2014, stalled 2016

The objective is or was duty-free trade on important environmental goods. Participants have not said on-the-record why the talks stalled. Among the sticking points was said to be the question of which products can be considered important environmental goods.

If concluded, the legal route might have been similar to the Information Technology Agreement, with new schedules of commitments on tariffs.

Legal stuff: there are no official or legal documents on these talks, only three WTO news stories from 2014, 2015 and 2016, the last one still strangely optimistic.

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


Talks launched 2017
Plurilateral (joint-statement) negotiations and discussions from 2017Back to top

Launched at the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference


10. SERVICES: DOMESTIC REGULATION (2017 joint-statement initiative) — 68 WTO members
Agreement — Non-discriminating (MFN) commitments, incorporating rules, 2021 (“schedules” of commitments still to be officially confirmed)

New disciplines to help services trade flow more easily and to reduce unintended trade-restrictions resulting from licensing requirements and procedures, qualification requirements and procedures, and technical standards and other measures.

The plurilateral negotiations were launched in 2017 following decades failure of multilateral talks on domestic regulation. Plurilateral agreement was reached in 2021. It is given legal force through schedules of commitments by the participants attached to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). (See the chart above.)

New rules are included but not as a formal text. Instead, a “reference paper” was agreed (similar to the method used in the financial services talk in the late 1990s, but an official WTO document), and the schedules include commitments to comply with the reference paper. The commitments (including the rules) are applied equally to all WTO members including non-participants (MFN).

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2017 ministerial (plurilateral) joint statement | Concluding declaration and reference paper | Schedules — not yet available publicly, but listed here with updates here | official documents (on services as a whole, S/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


11. E-COMMERCE AND DIGITAL TRADE86 WTO members
Negotiation — aiming for new rules and commitments. Unclear whether commitments are MFN or not.

Six main themes: enabling electronic commerce, openness and electronic commerce, trust and digital trade, cross-cutting issues, telecommunications, and market access. The result would be both new rules and new schedules of commitments.

At this stage it is unclear and perhaps undecided how the outcome would be applied in practice and whether the intention is to apply the commitments equally to all WTO members (MFN) or to aim for something like the Government Procurement Agreement. (See the chart above.) A leaked draft agreement from 2020 says “This working document does not prejudice the final legal framework which will give effect to each provision.”

(Not to be confused with multilateral WTO work — involving the whole membership — on electronic commerce: the 1998 work programme and the decision not to charge customs duties on electronic transmissions for a limited period, so far always extended, known as the “moratorium”.)

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2017 ministerial (plurilateral) joint statement | Actual launch — 2019 joint statement | Draft text (leaked, 2020) | official documents (INF/ECOM/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


12. INVESTMENT FACILITATION FOR DEVELOPMENT111 WTO members
Negotiation — aiming for new rules but apparently no new market access commitments

The aim is a multilateral agreement to “improve the investment and business climate, and make it easier for investors in all sectors of the economy to invest, conduct their day-to-day business and expand their operations”, the WTO says. It would include helping developing and least-developed countries participate more in global investment flows.

“The initiative does not cover market access, investment protection and investor-state dispute settlement.”

Without market access commitments there might not be schedules. In any case, the only possible routes of attaching schedules would be under services (which does not cover all types of investment) or under Annex 4 (plurilateral agreements), which probably requires WTO-wide consensus even if the agreement is plurilateral. (See the chart above.)

For this reason, it’s also unclear how and where new investment facilitation rules would be added to the WTO legal structure. Hamid Mamdouh has proposed creating a new Annex 5, but a consensus among WTO members would be needed to do this.

Initiated by some developing countries and with such a large number of them participating (including China), only a few — including India and South Africa — would be left to block consensus (if they wanted to) on attaching the deal under Annex 4 or creating a new Annex 5.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2017 ministerial (plurilateral) joint statement | 2021 statement on concluding in 2022 based on the latest draft | the drafts — not available publicly | summaries of meetings (public) | official documents (INF/IFD/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


13. MICRO, SMALL AND MEDIUM-SIZED ENTERPRISES (MSMEs)94 WTO members
Discussion — so far producing recommendations and declarations

An informal working group is exploring ways in which WTO members could better support smaller enterprises’ participation in global trade.

For now at least, participants do not envisage new rules or commitments. They have produced recommendations and declarations on compiling information and access to it (including to a WTO database), making trade easier for smaller companies and helping them participate in developing regulations, and on access to trade finance.

The group has a number of other activities.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2017 ministerial (plurilateral) joint statement | 2021 package of recommendations and declarations | 2021 draft ministerial (plurilateral) declaration | official documents (INF/MSME/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


14. GENDER EQUALITY AND WOMEN IN TRADE115 WTO members (excluding observers)
Discussion — analysis, sharing experiences, input for aid-for-trade activities

The official drive to improve women’s role in trade was launched at the 2017 Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires. Various activities developed, many by the WTO Secretariat. It was not until September 2020 that a working group was set up. It has 127 WTO members and observers. Full details are here.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2017 ministerial (plurilateral) joint declaration | 2021 draft ministerial (plurilateral) declaration | official documents (INF/TGE/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


Talks launched 2021
Plurilateral (joint-statement) discussions from 2021Back to top

Originally intended to be launched at the Geneva Ministerial Conference, which was postponed. The statements were issued anyway


15. TRADE AND ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY STRUCTURED DISCUSSIONS70 WTO members
Discussion

The big question is why this cannot be done in the WTO-wide Trade and Environment Committee. At the launch, less than half of the membership were prepared to participate in these discussions. (A second quirk is the need to say “structured” as if discussions in the WTO are generally unstructured.)

The aim is to produce “actions and deliverables” on trade that contribute to sustainability and tackling climate change. The actions envisaged are not (at this stage) new rules or commitments, but non-binding recommendations and best practices, in a range of relevant subjects. Transparency, sharing information and cooperation with other international organisations also feature. Details are here.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2021 draft (plurilateral) ministerial declaration | official documents (INF/TE/SSD/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


16. PLASTICS: INFORMAL DIALOGUE ON PLASTIC POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE TRADE67 WTO members
Discussion — “Informal dialogue

Actually launched in 2020 but with a declaration prepared for ministers in 2021. The aim is to explore how the WTO could contribute to efforts to reduce plastics pollution and promote the transition to more environmentally sustainable trade in plastics.

Details include: improving transparency and monitoring trade trends (an initial focus); promoting best practices; strengthening policy coherence; identifying the scope for collective approaches; assessing capacity and technical assistance needs; and cooperating with other international processes and efforts. For now (at least) no new rules or commitments are discussed.

The group keeps the Trade and Environment Committee informed and encourages others to join.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2020 (plurilateral) communication | Mandate updated — 2021 draft (plurilateral) ministerial declaration | official documents (INF/TE/IDP/*)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


17. FOSSIL FUEL SUBSIDIES45 WTO members
Discussion — for now, although the aim of phasing out subsidies suggests negotiating rules or commitments. Sometimes, but not always, called “fossil fuel subsidy reform (FFSR)

Phasing out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, which encourage wasteful consumption and disadvantage renewable energy, taking into account the needs of developing countries.

Several observers have questioned the meaning of “inefficient” here.

The first ministerial statement was actually in 2017, but since then, until December 2021, there were no official WTO meetings and no proposals from participants or other documents — although New Zealand and other participants reportedly rallied support from more members.

Whether the 2017 statement initiates anything is moot, mainly because no activity resulted from it, and also partly because the statement is broad and brief, and less specific than the other 2017 joint-statements in specifying activities in the WTO that might result.

The 2021 statement is more specific in saying what the participants “will” do (rather than “seek”).

Apparently for all those reasons, the WTO website calls this a “new” initiative.

Legal stuff: Mandate — 2021 draft (plurilateral) ministerial statement (original 2017 ministerial statement) | official documents — none circulated and no code numbers set up so far (searching for trade and environment committee documents, WT/CTE/*, with “fossil fuel subsidies” in the title produces at least one result)

WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


Dispute settlementBack to top

This is not usually counted among plurilaterals and joint-statement initiatives. But it is a deal among only some WTO members, specifically to allow dispute rulings to be appealed while the Appellate Body is unable to function, and is therefore (rightly) included on the Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


18. MULTI-PARTY INTERIM APPEAL ARBITRATION ARRANGEMENT (MPIA)46 WTO members
Agreement — alternative legal procedures agreed in 2020, only applies among participants

With the Appellate Body unable to function, some members still want to be able to appeal first-stage legal rulings by WTO dispute settlement panels. They have agreed to use dispute-settlement rules on arbitration as an alternative route until the Appellate Body can function again. This route has weaker legal implications than proper appeals because the results are not formally adopted by the WTO’s membership (in the Dispute Settlement Body).

Potential arbitrators were appointed in August 2020. But so far, no disputes have reached the stage yet where this procedure might be used.

This comes under existing WTO rules on arbitration (Article 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding, Annex 2 in the chart above), with details in a 7-page statement and agreed procedures issued by the participants.

(The first and so far only WTO dispute to use appeal-by-arbitration was about Türkiye’s policies to protect local pharmaceutical products, one of a pair of cases under a bilateral agreement with the EU that is separate from the multi-party arrangement but very similar. Details of the bilateral agreement for both cases are here.)

● Legal stuff: Mandate — plurilateral statement | referring to Article 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding | official documents — all versions of the statement (JOB/DSB/1/*)

More information | WTO website | Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website


The Tokyo Round ‘codes’Back to top

See “Pre-WTO legal texts


More on WTO decision-making, consensus and voting


Updates:

August 31, 2022 — under No 18 (MPIA), adding the link to the article on the Türkiye-EU agreement on appealing by arbitration
March 24, 2022 — updating and correcting micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)
February 24, 2022 — adding the distinction between plurilateral and multilateral work on e-commerce in the WTO
February 4, 2022 — adding new search link for documents on fossil fuel subsidy reform
January 18–27, 2022 — adding the Uruguay Round “zero-for-zero” pharmaceuticals agreement, and a link to the Winters-Hoekman paper, which includes it; adding more on the legal basis of the interim arbitration arrangement in dispute settlement; minor edits, typo corrections and some new hyperlinks
January 10, 2022 — adding: links to and quotes from Andrew Stoler’s paper; termination dates (1997) and documents for the dairy and beef plurilaterals; Hamid Mamdouh’s proposal for an Annex 5
January 5–9, 2022 — adding the jargon buster box and more links to the WTO page containing the legal texts and services protocols
January 4, 2022 — adding links to official documents for each plurilateral, clarifying that there were no meetings or documents on fossil fuel subsidies resulting from the 2017 statement
January 3, 2022 — adding 2017 statement under fossil fuel subsidies

Image credits:
Book cover | WTO
Featured image and section separator backgrounds | Rodnae Productions, Pexels licence
Other photos and charts | Peter Ungphakorn, CC BY 2.0

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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