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Fifty years on from the birth of global trade diplomacy

There are many reasons to remember and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first session of the United Nations Con-ference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD I), which was held in Geneva, from March 23 to June 16, 1964.

I have vivid memories of watching the deliberations of UNCTAD I half a century ago from a gallery of the Palais des Nations. The first major diplomatic gathering after the Second World War was attended by over 1,200 delegates and experts from 120 states.

Its scope was impressive, covering international trade and development problems on which 59 individual proposals were adopted. The most important document was the Final Act of the Conference, formally adopted on June 16, 1964.

The fundamental spirit of the Final Act was inspired by the need for the whole international community to combine its efforts to ensure that all countries - regardless of size, wealth or economic and social system - should enjoy the benefits of international trade for their economic development and social progress. The gravity of the deterioration in the international trade situation of developing countries was strongly stressed.

The UN General Assembly was requested to adopt a permanent mandate for UNCTAD to promote international trade, especially with a view to accelerating economic development. The new body was to meet every four years.

The most striking and important feature of the Geneva Conference was the display of unity by developing countries, which led to the establishment of the Group of 77 (G77), seen by many as perhaps the most important political phenomenon in the history of multilateral diplomacy. This coalition had not existed prior to UNCTAD I.

In June 1964, 77 developing nations, including Thailand, issued a "Joint Declaration" in which they stated that UNCTAD marked the beginning of a new era of international cooperation in trade and development, which must serve as a decisive instrument for ending the division of the world into areas of affluence and intolerable poverty.

Thirty-six years after UNCTAD I, another milestone for multilateral economic diplomacy was reached with UNCTAD X, when 190 countries met in Bangkok from February 12-19, 2000, to discuss globalisation and development in all their complexities.

It is important to recall the determination of the 190 countries to promote the Spirit of Bangkok in a bid to strengthen multilateral cooperation. UNCTAD X adopted by consensus the "Bangkok Declaration: Global Dialogue and Dynamic Engagement".

The Declaration emphasised that solidarity and a strong sense of moral responsibility were the guiding light of national and international policy. They are not only ethical imperatives but also prerequisites for a prosperous, peaceful and secure world based on true partnership. Such partnership requires more inclusive, transparent and participatory institutional arrangements for international economic decision-making so as to ensure that the benefits of globalisation are accessible to all on an equitable basis. In addition, the success of international development efforts depends on all stakeholders, including the private sector, non-governmental organisations and academia. UNCTAD X also adopted the Bangkok Plan of Action, which laid down strategies to make economic globalisation an engine for economic growth and development for all countries.

In 2009, when Thailand became Chair of the Geneva Chapter of the "Group of 77 and China" (now the official name of a G77 expanded to 133 countries), it was recalled that G77's original focus was on addressing a plethora of trade and development issues on their own merit as well as in the broader context of the global development discourse.

In this context, it is frequently mentioned that under Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD from 2005-2013, this organisation has maintained and increased its role and relevance as a knowledge-based institution through which developed and developing countries, particularly members of the G77, exchange policy dialogues on trade and development issues.

On the occasion of UNCTAD and G77's 50th anniversary, the assessment formulated by Supachai in 2006 is extremely topical. Indeed, UNCTAD carries the same "DNA" as the G77. They were born together in 1964, they have grown together, and they have kept a strong and special relationship guided by a shared destiny.

The G77 is the biggest stakeholder in the UN's development role, and it must ensure that UN reforms reflect its aspirations. UNCTAD has always received the support of the G77, and this is testimony to the confidence the G77 places in its "brother" organisation.

Formed with a global and far-reaching vision, UNCTAD and the G77 will continue to be steadfast and dynamic partners in the decades to come, spurring the collective effort for the realisation of global development aspirations.

Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University.


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