3 Jul 2018

Master’s programmes draw to a close

The teaching year for students on the 2017-2018 advanced master programmes at the WTI has officially ended with a closing ceremony at the University of Bern.

MILE and TRAIL+ graduates were joined by family members, foreign diplomats and WTI staff at the event in the university’s main building on 29 June.

In his welcome address, WTI Director of Studies Peter Van den Bossche talked about the ongoing trade spat between the United States and the European Union, and the US and China. “It is clear that the multilateral rules-based trade system that has served us so well is in deep crisis,” he said. “This is the reality of this day when we mark the closing of the WTI masters programmes.”

Professor Van den Bossche said it was a great honour and privilege to welcome the keynote speaker, Deputy Director-General of the WTO Alan Wolff, to the WTI and the topic of his speech, The Rule of Law in an Age of Conflict, was very appropriate against the background of today’s reality.

A leading international trade lawyer, Ambassador Wolff of the United States began his four-year term at the WTO last October. He began by saying that months ago when he composed his talk he had not envisaged the conflict there would be nor did he anticipate the apparent diminution of the rule of law. “The WTO is in the eye of the storm,” he said. Despite that, “the WTO goes about its business much like Londoners during the Blitz.” While more than a few WTO members were nursing grievances, he did not subscribe to an apocalyptic view of the future, the ambassador said. All members agreed on the importance of the multilateral trading system, even if many – notably developing countries - believed the burdens outweighed the benefits.

Rule of law is key

Dissatisfaction was quite widespread but the rule of law was the answer to fostering good relations, the Ambassador argued. For international commerce to thrive the rule of law was a necessary precondition. “The alternative to rules is chaos.” Some countries, however, were acting outside the WTO rules. There was a need for members to show self-restraint. But reform of the WTO, as called for by President Macron of France, could move the organisation to a better place.

Turning to the Appellate Body, Ambassador Wolff said it was “faced with extinction”. Steps had to be taken to resolve the issues causing the impasse. “I believe the Appellate Body can still be saved with changes,” he said, adding that he was holding talks with ambassadors in Geneva to see if there was a way it could be restored.

In conclusion he said that maintaining the trade system and moving it forward required leadership. Retaliation and counter retaliation needed to be managed and the WTO rules broadened and updated to reduce the risk of conflict.

“It is up to you and your generation what happens,” he told the WTI graduates. “I hope some of you will take on the challenges. I leave to you the task of creating WTO 3.0: there is much to be accomplished. Each of you, go forward and make a difference.”

Presentation of awards

Thomas Cottier, former Managing Director of the WTI, then presented the Thomas Cottier Award for Best Master Thesis to Jean-Philippe Herbert of the MILE 17 programme for a thesis entitled, Legal Counsel in Investment Treaty Arbitration: Does Background Matter?

This was followed by the awarding of the John H. Jackson Internship Award (JJIF) that offers financial support to one student each year to pursue an unpaid internship at an NGO or public institution . On behalf of the JJIF selection committee, Professor Van den Bossche presented the award to Sonam Wangdi from Bhutan.

He then handed the floor to the two class representatives. Ali Al-Hafeedh said the course had been “truly challenging but equally rewarding”. He told his classmates they could be proud of their achievement and should believe in themselves. Nomfundo Mkatschwa talked about the diversity of the class, with students representing 15 countries. She talked about the course as a “life-changing experience” and thanked the faculty for pushing the students to their limits.

In his closing remarks, Professor Van den Bossche said the students could look back on a momentous year of very hard work, “a year that made you smarter, wiser and better prepared for the challenges of your future professional career”. To those who may be doubting their choice now that the WTO was “drifting” and “taking in water” he said the ship could not be allowed to sink. “This ship needs you, the next generation of trade policy makers, to close the holes, revive the engine and fix the rudder." He said he trusted that over the course of the next 30 years the new graduates would dedicate themselves to keeping the ship on course.