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Messy and cumbersome as it may seem, the WTO is still the best hope for managing the chaotic process of negotiating trade rules and liberalizing world trade.The Associated Press

John Weekes, a senior business adviser at Bennett Jones LLP, was Canada's ambassador to the WTO and chief negotiator for the NAFTA

A few years ago, a World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting would have been the focus of global attention. But with the Doha Round stalled, trade minister Ed Fast and the other 152 delegates at this week's gathering in Geneva (Dec. 15-17) are already in general agreement that it will "not be a negotiating meeting." The outcome has been largely precooked.

So, why make the trip? Well, for one key reason -- the WTO is still the biggest game in town.

Here's what's on the agenda and why it's important:

  • As the global economic slump continues, the WTO is on the front line, monitoring trade measures taken by its members. This is a key function, alerting the world to protectionist dangers. Ministers will underscore the WTO's role in keeping markets open and pledge to "resist protectionism in all its forms".

  • The Doha Development Agenda may by at an impasse but ministers will, however, discuss whether some elements of the package (like trade facilitation) could be provisionally agreed while work continues on the broader outcome. Unfortunately, there is no common agreement as yet as to which issues might be the subject of such a provisional agreement.

  • Ministers will formally approve the accession of Russia to the WTO, completing a marathon 18 years of negotiation. Second, they may reach agreement on significant improvements to the WTO's Government Procurement Agreement of which Canada and 41 other countries are members.

  • Ministers will also discuss emerging challenges that will need to be addressed in the years ahead. Prominent among these is to make sure that border measures, used in conjunction with domestic programs to reduce greenhouse gases, do not disrupt trade and violate WTO rules. Another challenge is determining whether the current trade rules need updating in today's environment of global supply chains, where increasingly it is elements of production rather than just finished goods that are traded across borders.

  • Finally, ministers need to start thinking about how to multilateralize all the regional and bilateral deals they are negotiating. Most businesses prefer global rules to figuring out how to operate with the myriad of regulations coming from these arrangements. The WTO has a role in ensuring that all its member countries and their businesses have the opportunity to compete on a relatively equal footing. And we shouldn't forget that the WTO's dispute settlement system is the default dispute resolution system in international trade relations.

The real value of the gathering is that ministers will personally take stock of the challenges and discuss the implications with their colleagues from other countries. Messy and cumbersome as it may seem, the WTO is still the best hope for managing the chaotic process of negotiating trade rules and liberalizing world trade. That is why ministers need to be in Geneva this week.