It has been a major player in the regulation of international trade for more than two decades, but in recent years, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has not been without challenges. As part of a global panel, Elisabeth Tuerk, Director, Economic Cooperation and Trade, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, shared with us her perspective on the outlook for the WTO.
Today’s backlash against globalisation is the result of a world stricken with inequality, poverty, climate change and exogenous shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions aimed at promoting cooperation between governments are paying the price: the WTO is facing an unprecedented crisis across its various functions and international treaties are being questioned. While the future of intergovernmental organisations is in doubt, one should not lose hope just yet.
The reality is that 20th-century intergovernmental organisations were created with noble objectives. After two devastating world wars, there was a common understanding that no country can achieve prosperity in isolation. So establishing platforms for cooperation among countries was seen as crucial to avoid future tensions. With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine a future without intergovernmental cooperation. In every crisis lies the seed of opportunity. For intergovernmental institutions, the current backlash presents an opportunity to reform and adapt to the realities of the 21st century, cater to the direct needs of their respective members, revisit their underlying objectives and salvage what is worth saving.
Similar to other intergovernmental organisations, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was created with the underlying objective to rebuild a war-torn continent through economic cooperation. In line with this vision, 70-plus years later, UNECE promotes sustainable development in support of the United Nations Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through policy dialogue, development of normative instruments, exchange of best practices and technical assistance, UNECE fosters cooperation among its 56 members in the pan-European region. The organisation places special emphasis on countries with economies in transition, such as those in Central Asia, the Southern Caucasus, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe.
UNECE offers a platform for experience-sharing and also produces concrete results in the form of soft law instruments. By covering topics such as agricultural quality standards, trade facilitation and e-business standards, UNECE’s normative instruments offer concrete guidance for the implementation of multilateral trade rules, such as those applying through the WTO, and again shows how vital intergovernmental cooperation is for dealing with such detailed issues.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of trade, intergovernmental organisations are vital to shaping a future that benefits all of us. For example, the UNECE assists countries to harness trade and economic cooperation for the SDGs. This includes novel topics, such as strengthening the traceability and transparency of value chains, helping to avoid person-to-person contact in COVID-19 times during cross-border document exchanges, fostering the circular economy, avoiding food loss and waste, and many more.
Given the devastating economic impact of COVID-19, there is no better time than now to explore innovative ways that can help countries build back better and sustainably through intergovernmental cooperation.
These are the views of the author and not those of the UNECE secretariat or its member states.