World Trade Organization countries meet in Ottawa to map path for reform

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OTTAWA — Canada’s international trade minister opened a day-long gathering in Ottawa on the future of the World Trade Organization by saying no one country is the cause of — or holds the solution to — the trade body’s woes.

Jim Carr says the world’s trade referee needs a revamp to make sure people still have confidence that trade is fair.

Reforms have been largely elusive for the 24-year-old WTO, but hostile rhetoric towards the organization from U.S. President Donald Trump — whose country wasn’t invited to today’s gathering — is giving the meeting added urgency.

The 13 members in attendance are looking at safeguarding and strengthening the dispute settlement system, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the WTO monitoring function and modernizing trade rules for the 21st century.

“The problems facing the multilateral trading system were not created by any one WTO member,”Carr said in his opening remarks.

“They are not new and they cannot be solved by any one member.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office says he spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this morning about the WTO meeting, noting the two leaders reaffirmed their continued commitment to free trade.

Trudeau reiterated the issue in welcoming Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to Parliament Hill, talking about their shared support of the WTO and “a trading system that is rule-based and fair.”

Trump has upended the world’s trading order with his “America First” policy and his penchant for punitive tariffs on imports, including levies on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico.

The tariffs made under national security reasons remain in place despite the North American partners agreeing on a new continental trade pact, christened the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

The U.S. has openly blocked the appointments of new judges to the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism, known as the appellate body — a tactic that threatens to paralyze the organization and prevent it from making decisions.

Neither the U.S. or China will take part in today’s meetings in the national capital to carve out a path to modernize the trade body for a 21st century economy.

A reformed WTO would ensure confidence that an independent body “based on consensus and common cause” can settle trade disputes, Carr said.

“We are a relatively small country and our major trading partners are big. Rules matter because we each merit the protections they afford and the opportunity they create for even the smallest first-time exporter in the most far-flung corner of the world to compete and to succeed,” Carr said.

“To make that kind of relationship work, we have to believe the rules of trade work for all of us and our people have to see that, too.”

The Canadian Press