WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy at 2012 Public Forum in Geneva. (WTO)
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy at 2012 Public Forum in Geneva. (WTO)

The World Trade Organization is holding its annual public forum in Geneva. Representatives from governments, NGOs, business and academia are debating whether international cooperation is suffering in these turbulent times.

The WTO is posing the question: Is multilateralism in crisis? One of the ways it’s defined is a group of countries working together on a particular issue, whether it be a trade pact, a voting bloc or a military alliance.

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy gave the 2012 Public Forum’s opening address.

“This year, like last year, has been marked by extraordinary turbulence, sluggish economic growth rates, high unemployment. Newly released figures on world trade that are just worrying. And in this slowdown no one has been spared,” he said.

Lamy said this year’s turmoil goes beyond economics.

“Like last year, political turbulence is rampant across the globe. Food prices are starting to rise once again, although not in the same alarming fashion. And the climate crisis is continuing to go unabated.”

The rise of emerging economies, he said, is bringing “new and stronger voices from the developing world” that are saying loud and clear “the rules of the multilateral system must change.”

The WTO chief said he agrees that the “rules of the game are in need of adjustment” -- whether in trade, economics, the environment or food security.

“Governments are not only struggling to cope with the vast panoply of domestic problems that they are confronted with, but they must do this against a landscape in which their relative powers have also changed,” he said.

Citizens, he said, are asking for “the right to a decent living.”

“They want jobs. They want human rights. They want dignity. The question then becomes can multilateral cooperation live up to their expectations? Will the international community be able to rise to the multiple challenges with which it is confronted today?”

Lamy said while multilateralism is facing obstacles, he is still somewhat optimistic. He says, for example, the many U.N. agencies based in Geneva are “symbols of international cooperation” – agencies “that rose out of the ashes of two world wars.”

“Yes, the challenges we face today are multiple and, yes, multilateralism is struggling, but we have proven ourselves to be up to the task before and I think we can be up to it again.” He said.

The World Trade Organization Public Forum runs through Wednesday, September 26th.