WTO chief makes Riga calls

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Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Roberto Azevedo was on a visit to Latvia Tuesday for a series of brief meetings with senior officials and to deliver a lecture at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.

Azevedo began with a call on Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma, after which Straujuma praised the WTO's role in helping Latvia since it joined the organization in 1999.

"I'm delighted that the Director General is making this first-ever visit to Latvia," Straujuma said.

"As a smaller economy, but part of the European Union, it's very important for Latvia to be involved with the WTO."

Azevedo said his visit signalled how important the region was to the WTO and said he had updated Straujuma on a range of trade issues and that currently the WTO's "everyday work" included trying to find a way out of the sanctions regimes inflicted on each other by the US and EU on one side and Russia on the other.

Sanctions do not comply with WTO principles, Azevedo said, but added that there had been no talk either officially or unofficially of Russia opting to leave the WTO.

Immediately afterwards, Azevedo made his way to a meeting with President Andris Berzins who claimed Latvia's efforts as part of the organization had "always been focused on stability" - apparently ignoring the massive economic crisis of 2008-9 that resulted from a severely imbalanced economy in the preceding years.

For his part, Azevedo said the way Latvia had hauled itself out of the crisis could act as an inspiration to other smaller economies facing tough times. 

Answering questions after his SSE lecture, Azevedo said sanctions were "exceptional measures" but as WTO director he could not comment on the legality or otherwise of sanctions - that being a job for the WTO's legal mechanism itself.

"Members finger point all the time," Azevedo said, "and sanctions are subject to this kind of finger pointing - on both sides. The EU claims Russia is violating WTO disciplines and Russia is claiming the EU is violating WTO disciplines... the same for the US."

"I don't know whether they violate the rules, but I have my own beliefs and they will go with me to bed - and to the grave," Azevedo said.

"They are free to challenge and talk to each other. I think and hope that at the moment there is no real appetite to challenge in the dispute settlement mechanism. There have been threats, but a formal challenge in the WTO frankly is not going to solve the problems 

The WTO exists to try and ensure that the rules of international trade are correctly applied and enforced around the world.

WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and set procedures for settling disputes.

Azevedo is the sixth Director General of the WTO since its founding in 1995. His appointment took effect on 1 September 2013 for a four-year term.

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