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United Nations issues guidance on negotiating trade agreements for increasing trade resilience in times of crisis and pandemic

Cover of a publication for Trade

The United Nations has released a first version of a Handbook on Provisions and Options for Trade in Times of Crisis and Pandemic. Work on the Handbook was initiated by ESCAP, UNCTAD and other UN Regional Commissions after realizing that the hundreds of regional trade agreements in place provided no guidance to countries on how to keep trade going during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Especially during the first half of 2020, countries took ad-hoc unilateral measures that seriously disrupted international supply chains, including supplies in essential goods, such as medical equipment as well as food. This spurred a host of legal questions, including questions about the compatibility of such measures with international trade rules, such as those set out in the WTO agreements. This also spurred an important policy debate, including about how to maintain trade facilitation efforts in times of crisis, and how to best foster trade and transport connectivity, including, for example through enhanced digitalization.

The Handbook is based on inputs collected from a wide range of experts, including from WTO, UNECE, civil society, academia and the private sector, under the Global Initiative on Model Provisions for Trade in Times of Crisis and Pandemic in Regional and other Trade Agreements (IMP). It is a living document, which will be updated based on feedback from users and as new lessons learned emerge. It is freely accessible at:

Along with the Handbook, the United Nations also has made available a free online self-paced course based on the Handbook. Everyone interested can take the short course and get the certificate upon completion of online testing requirements at Professors and teachers of international trade law and development are welcome to integrate the short course in their own programmes. ESCAP, UNCTAD and other UN Regional Commissions will also organize facilitated global and regional courses based on the Handbook starting later this year.

UNECE, with its longstanding history on trade facilitation, offers a number of tools that guide countries in their trade-related pandemic responses. The UNECE-hosted United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) has developed numerous technical standards and recommendations to boost countries’ potential and benefit from international trade treaties, including the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), as discussed in this Handbook.

For example, addressing the challenges faced by countries during the first days of natural disasters, the UNECE member States, through UN/CEFACT adopted a Recommendation No. 44: Cross-Border Facilitation Measures for Disaster Relief which guides countries to provide effective relief measures. Immediate responsive priorities include:

  • Airport management
  • One-Stop Shop and Coordinated Border Management
  • Paper-based and other fallback procedures
  • Identification and prioritization of needed disaster relief items
  • Acceptance of pre-arrival information and pre-arrival processing
  • Emergency registration process for eligible assisting actors.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, countries further strengthened their sanitary measures enforced. Addressing this challenge, the Handbook further stressed the importance of compatibility of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures with harmonization as the key element. The introduction of electronic SPS certificates can facilitate the exchange of information for traded agricultural products between governments and regulators. The structure of an electronic SPS certificate has been published by UN/CEFACT as a global international standard under the name e-CERT supporting exchange of information between actors involved in cross border trade where export/import certification is required to facilitate entry of product.

This Handbook in combination with UNECE and UN/CEFACT standards and recommendations offers an essential tool for countries striving to harness the power of trade, including in times of crisis. It is hoped that the Handbook will be used in numerous activities aimed at providing technical assistance and building capacity for sustainable development in line with the UN SDGs.

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United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

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