The World Trade Organisation (WTO) founded in 1995 aims to increase international trade in goods, services and agriculture through multilateral negotiations open to all countries. It also serves to enforce adherence to WTO agreements through its dispute resolution and appeals process. AFTINET supports the concept of a multilateral system open to all countries, with enforceable rules that includes developing countries.
But in practice the WTO has often failed to deliver meaningful outcomes for poorer countries. Negotiations have been dominated by the most powerful players which have not responded to developing country concerns. The WTO consensus system of decision-making means these countries can block proposals even if the majority of WTO members support them. This has resulted in stalled negotiations and reduced hopes for a fair multilateral trade system.
From 1995 the WTO had agreements on goods, services, agriculture, intellectual property, and other issues. But over the last decade the WTO has stalled on new agreements, with only one agreement reached between all its members: the 2013 “Bali Package” on trade facilitation, which had a tiny scope compared with previous meetings and overall WTO objectives. The WTO has focussed instead on negotiating smaller "plurilateral" agreements involving fewer, mostly industrialised, countries.
The result of the WTO’s shortcomings has been an increasing number of bilateral and regional free trade agreements being negotiated outside the WTO framework. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)
These deals have generally left out the poorest countries and pushed a more “ambitious” corporate agenda, including chapters which are not about traditional trade issues at all – such as increased investor rights, greater restrictions on government regulation and stronger monopolies on patents (including medicines) and copyright which are actually the opposite of “free trade”.
During the COVID pandemic in 202-2022, over 100 mostly developing countries in the WTO supported a temporary waiver on WTO rules for 20-year monopolies on medicines which meant the pharmaceutical companies sold most vaccines at high prices to rich countries, leaving very low vaccination rates in low-income countries, and even less access to treatments and tests. The waiver would have enabled increased global production at lower prices. Rich countries, lobbied by their pharmaceutical companies, blocked the waiver for 20 months until June 2022, when a small change was made to patent rules for vaccines only. As of February 2023, there is still no decision on treatments and tests. This delay cost millions of lives.
In general, AFTINET advocates for multilateral trade negotiations involving 164 WTO members over bilateral and regional negotiations. The WTO needs fundamental change to a fairer multilateral system that would give developing countries more negotiating power and be based on commitments to human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability. Nearly all governments agreed to these principles through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, but they have not been integrated into WTO goals or practice. A blueprint for achieving these goals can be found in "A New Multilateralism for Shared Prosperity: Geneva Principles for a Green New Deal" published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).