WTO 13th Ministerial Conference Background

John G. Murphy John G. Murphy
Senior Vice President, Head of International, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


February 06, 2024


The World Trade Organization (WTO) will hold its 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) from February 26-29 in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Held about every two years, these meetings bring together representatives of the WTO’s 164 member countries, business leaders, and civil society representatives to press for progress on trade negotiations and to show support for the global rules-based trading system.

The WTO’s continued success is critical to the U.S. business and agriculture communities. The global rules-based trading system the WTO embodies has benefited countries around the world—but none more than the United States.

However, the agenda in Abu Dhabi will likely focus on a small number of hot-button issues. The Chamber’s priorities for MC13 include the following:

First, Do No Harm

Unfortunately, proposals to spur global economic growth by opening the doors of trade—and pushing back against protectionist impulses—are less prominent on this occasion. On the contrary, some WTO members are pressing to end the two-decade-old moratorium on duties on electronic transmissions, known as the “e-commerce moratorium.” Ending the moratorium and subsequent moves by its opponents to tax data flows and electronic transmissions would strangle one of the biggest drivers of growth in the world today—at least in the countries that choose such a self-destructive path.

A second ill-considered proposal would expand the earlier waiver of commitments under the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement related to COVID-19 vaccines to also include therapeutics and diagnostics. Such a move would further entrench an already damaging precedent without addressing the real barriers to patient access. An expansion of the waiver would undermine IP-driven innovation and potentially force the transfer of technology and know-how to competing firms in China and elsewhere.

Second, Reject False Choices

There’s also concern that proponents of these two harmful proposals may seek to compel WTO members to choose between them, pressing the United States and other countries that have traditionally championed digital trade and intellectual property rights to select at least one dish from this poisoned menu. For the U.S. business community, this is unacceptable: There is no connection between these issues, and the Biden administration has an obligation to defend the commercial rights of industries that employ millions of Americans. 

Third, Shore Up the System

The business community is also pressing for progress in fixing the WTO’s dispute settlement system, which is compromised by the shuttering of the Appellate Body. As a result, when a WTO dispute settlement panel issues a ruling, the losing party can simply appeal it into the void—and pretend it has no real obligation to comply. This undermines compliance with the WTO agreements and may contribute to creeping protectionism around the globe. Finding a way to repair WTO dispute settlement is a priority.

Finally, WTO members are seeking to conclude the second phase of an agreement to curb fisheries subsidies that contribute significantly to the depletion of fish stocks worldwide. This is a clear instance where the WTO can directly aid in addressing an important sustainability issue, and it would build on an agreement made at the last ministerial to ban subsidies that support illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. An agreement is within reach; negotiators need to get it done.


Read additional background on the value of the WTO, the e-commerce moratorium, the TRIPS waiver, and dispute settlement.

WTO 13th Ministerial Conference Background

About the authors

John G. Murphy

John G. Murphy

John Murphy directs the U.S. Chamber’s advocacy relating to international trade and investment policy and regularly represents the Chamber before Congress, the administration, foreign governments, and the World Trade Organization.

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