Through September 2021, when a country went through a Trade Policy Review, a large amount of material was made available to the public at the time of the TPR meeting with additional information (minutes, questions and answers, corrections to Secretariat report and/or government report) released a number of months later. The WTO press releases at the time of the TPR meeting were similar. The one for Singapore from 22 and 24 September 2021 is typical.
As can be seen from the press release, the public could access the full report of the Secretariat, the full report of the Government of Singapore, the concluding comments of the Chairperson as well as an Executive Summary of the Secretariat report at the time of the two day meeting to review the reports. Moreover, minutes from the meeting were available to the public typically about six weeks after the meeting as were the written questions and written answers.
Beginning in October, the press release has been modified and far less information is made available immediately to the public. There have been two TPRs so far in October, the Republic of Korea (13 and 15 October) and China (20 and 22 October). A TPR of the Russian Federation is scheduled for next week.
The WTO press release for the Republic of Korea is copied below. The current one for China is similar.
There is nothing on the WTO webpage which describes why so little information is being provided beginning this month on new Trade Policy Reviews. For the public, the drastic reduction in transparency makes the WTO operations even less understandable.
If the WTO will be releasing all of the documents it has historically but with significant time delays on all documents, what is the justification? For 25 years, TPRs have been conducted with the type of information released that gave the public a good understanding of the Secretariat’s and the government’s review of its trade policy. That understanding has been timely, consistent with the meeting and supplemented within several months with minutes and the written questions and answers.
If the WTO is not intending on releasing all of the documents it has historically released, what is the possible justification?
China, which is going through a Trade Policy Review this week, also went through a TPR in 2018. In 2018, the Secretariat Report released to the public at the time of the TPR meeting was 193 pages (along with a summary of 6 pages). See WT/TPR/S/375. China’s Report on its trade policy was 23 pages. See WT/TPR/G/375. These documents are dated 6 June 2018. A revision to the Secretariat Report is dated 14 September 2018 and was also 193 pages ( WT/TPR/S/375/Rev.1). The Concluding remarks by the Chairperson are contained in a separate press release from the WTO at the time of the TPR meeting but linked from the main notice of the TPR. See WTO news, Trade Policy Review: China, 11 and 13 July 2018, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp475_e.htm linking to the concluding remarks of the Chairperson at https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp475_crc_e.htm. The minutes of the meeting are contained in WT/TPR/M/375, 21 November 20218 and are 98 pages in length with statements from 66 Members (two on behalf of larger groups). The written questions and answers are contained in WT/TPR/M/375/Add.1, dated 1 February 2019 and being 729 pages in length. The WTO Members who submitted questions (including follow-up questions) are shown on pages 2-3 of the document.
Because the current TPR on China (20 and 22 October) does not provide either of the full reports (Secretariat and Government) and because there is no indication of when minutes or written questions and answers will be available, there is certainly delayed access and potentially denial of access of the same type of information on China (or any other country) that was been released in the past. This should be viewed as unacceptable by the WTO Secretariat and WTO Members and certainly should be so viewed by the public.
What is available to the public from a Trade Policy Review is critical for an understanding of concerns raised by WTO Members about any other Member’s trade policy as well as the level and openness of the response from the Member being reviewed. The Secretariat’s report is an important factual analysis of developments in the Member being reviewed. The recent curtailment of access to the full Secretariat Report and the full Government Report greatly harms transparency and the ability of the public to understand developments within WTO Members in a timely manner. Should the WTO cease to release any of the information heretofore available to the public in current and future TPRs, the WTO will be further damaging the public’s perception of the WTO and will be further retreating from openness and transparency towards the public..