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WTO - Members cite role of trade facilitation in ensuring access to goods to tackle COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was a recurring theme at the meeting of the WTO’s Committee on Trade Facilitation on 20-21 October. A number of members highlighted how trade facilitation — and the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) in particular — can be used to help authorities ensure that essential goods related to COVID-19 treatments and equipment can cross borders and reach their intended recipients quickly.

Several members made presentations during the committee meeting regarding initiatives they have taken to facilitate trade during the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States, Brazil, Colombia and Japan issued a joint call for accelerated implementation of the TFA, arguing that cross-border trade is a critical channel for getting essential products to those who need them. The committee also reviewed more than 70 notifications from members outlining steps taken or planned to implement provisions of the TFA.

Members' presentations on pandemic-related actions

Sri Lanka said its customs authorities have launched initiatives and implemented mechanisms to ensure the smooth flow of essential medical supplies and other commodities during the pandemic. This included tailoring cargo inspection to ensure the release of medium and low risk cargo with minimum or no customs intervention, issuing regulatory approvals in electronic format, and establishing priority clearance procedures for consignments of relief goods.

The Dominican Republic noted that it had adopted temporary measures to facilitate trade in response to the pandemic, including suspending import and consumer taxes on hand sanitizer, personal protection equipment and other goods as well as streamlining import and export procedures to clear high-priority imports. 

The European Union outlined how customs authorities have facilitated compliance with rules of origin certification for the Pan-euro-Med Area by issuing digitally signed confirmation letters and exchanging scanned certificates electronically to overcome customs office lockdowns and other restrictions during the pandemic.      

Japan said its authorities have responded to the pandemic by facilitating customs clearance procedures and simplifying import/export declaration forms for relief supplies. They have also granted flexibilities in timelines related to the submission of certificates of origin and the payment of duties.

Canada, on behalf of the Ottawa Group (Australia, Brazil, Chile, European Union, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland), presented a compilation of trade facilitation measures  its members have implemented over the past half-year in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Canada said the group was sharing these experiences to help identify ways to take full advantage of the opportunities for trade facilitation in the TFA and to promote best practices for the implementation of the Agreement.

US, Brazil, Colombia and Japan call for expedited TFA implementation

In presenting a joint communication from the United States, Brazil, Colombia and (as a late co-sponsor) Japan, US Ambassador to the WTO Dennis Shea said the WTO “is not the forum for providing the health solutions to COVID-19, but it is the forum for providing the roadmap for countries to access and trade medical and health supplies and equipment across borders”.

“Cross-border trade is a critical channel for getting essential products to those who need them,” Mr Shea said, and the TFA can play a critical role in keeping those goods moving across borders. The four sponsors of the communication were not asking WTO members to take on any new commitments but to accelerate implementation of TFA commitments where possible.

“Now more than ever, it's time to work together, and keep our feet on the gas,” Mr Shea declared.

The TFA entered into force on 22 February 2017. Developed members of the WTO committed to apply the substantive portions of the TFA from the date it took effect.  Developing countries and least developed countries (LDCs) were given flexibility to indicate which substantial provisions they intended to apply immediately and which provisions would be implemented following a transition period they themselves designate.

The four sponsors said ongoing TFA implementation is already resulting in greater customs efficiency, more effective revenue collection, and better access for small enterprises to new export opportunities. Measures designed to improve transparency in customs practices, reduce documentary requirements and allow for processing of documents before goods arrive have had an immediate impact on traders, they added.

A dozen members took the floor to comment, with many expressing their support for the initiative and the importance of trade facilitation in ensuring essential goods can cross borders quickly. One member emphasized the importance of donor support in assisting members with implementation, while another said it believed members themselves were best placed to determine when to implement their commitments.

Secretariat update on ratifications and implementation

The WTO Secretariat provided an update on members' ratifications and implementation of the TFA. Since the last committee meeting, four new ratifications have been received (Tanzania, Vanuatu, Tunisia and Colombia), bringing the total number of ratifications to 153 members, or 93% of the membership. 

Overall, the rate of implementation of TFA commitments currently stands at just over 66% for the entire WTO membership, the Secretariat said. Fifteen developing country members have already achieved 100% implementation of the TFA. Developed countries were required to ensure full implementation when the TFA entered into force. 

Regarding LDCs, 27 members, or 84% of LDCs that have notified Category B designations, have also notified definitive dates for the implementation of their Category B commitments, while 25 members, or 75% of LDCs that have already notified Catetory C designations, have also notified the definitive dates for the implementation of their Category C commitments.

Under the TFA, Category B covers TFA provisions that developing countries and LDCs will implement over transition periods determined by them and set out in notifications to the WTO. Category C covers TFA provisions that developing countries and LDCs will implement over transition periods determined by them and set out in notifications to the WTO, and which require capacity building support in order to help implement the commitments.

Category A covers commitments that members agreed to implement when the TFA entered into force.

Dedicated session on assistance and capacity building

Members met on 21 October to review progress in the provision of support and assistance for capacity building to support implementation of the TFA, exchange information on implementation problems, and share experiences on ongoing assistance and support.  Presentations made at the dedicated session are available here.

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