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This agreement on trade facilitation was agreed by a WTO ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia, which ended late on Friday December 6.

The meeting’s chairman, Gita Wirjawan – Indonesia’s trade minister – said the deal would “reduce the cost of trading, smooth the flow of goods across borders and provide more certainty for business”. 

The organisation insists that all WTO members (which include 159 countries including all the world’s significant economies) publish all their import procedures, charges, tariffs and appeal systems.

It says penalties for breaking customs rules must depend on the seriousness of the breach and must not encourage officials to impose them arbitrarily, avoiding “conflicts of interest in the assessment and collection of penalties and duties”. A written explanation for imposing such penalties must be given, specifying the infraction and applicable laws, regulations or procedures.

Steel exporters should also be offered the option to lodge customs documents electronically in advance for pre-arrival processing, with WTO member states offering the electronic payment of duties, taxes, fees and charges.

The agreement allows importing countries to charge deposits or the payments of taxes and fees before goods arrive in port, but their value must not be greater than the duties, taxes, fees and charges that would ultimately be due.

WTO member states have agreed to review their trade processes and simplify them to ensure they are designed and applied “in a manner that aims at reducing the time and cost of compliance for traders and operators”. They would in future be expected to take “the least trade-restrictive measure" where "two or more alternative measures are reasonably available”.

A WTO note claimed the agreement’s benefits to the world economy would be between $400 billion and $1 trillion by reducing the costs of trade by between 10% and 15%, “increasing trade flows and revenue collection, creating a stable business environment and attracting foreign investment”.

“It will benefit all members, but particularly developing countries, which will have access to assistance to improve their systems and procedures. Most of the economic benefit from trade facilitation will flow to developing countries,” Wirjawan added.

The text of the agreement will be finalised for legal purposes, to be approved formally by the WTO general council on July 31 in 2014.