APEC 2018 Senior Officials' Meeting (SOM) - Blog3

March 05, 2018

By David Dodwell

Some meetings in APEC are more intimidating than others. I always wondered what on earth we were going to learn in the SCE-COW. The acronym alone was mysterious and non-intuitive. Even when some APEC insider patiently explained to me what it meant – the Senior Officials’ Steering Committee on Economic and Technical Cooperation – Committee of the Whole – I was really none the wiser. It turned out the discussions were fascinating, and quite valuable for the cooperation and capacity-building it encourages across APEC.
Over the past week, I have been intimidated afresh, by APEC’s SELI. Again, totally non-intuitive. It stands for the group on Strengthening Economic and Legal Infrastructure. Walk into the room, and anxiety levels soar afresh: it is always full of lawyers. The prospect of spending two days parrying with, or simply learning from, 40-50 legal practitioners – or even worse, legally trained government officials – is surely the very epitome of masochism.
Then you see the name cards up on the podium, and feel thankful for the cups of coffee you had consumed over breakfast: representatives from UNCITRAL, the Hague Convention, and UNIDROIT have a very hard time appearing user-friendly. But the objective of the meeting is honourable and valuable: to cut costs and uncomplicate the lives of companies that stray into cross-border business. This is particularly important for the SMEs that we are now encouraging to start exporting. But the intellectual intimidation continues: we are told that one of the saviour arrangements for any company needing to agree cross-border contracts is to apostille the documents. Apostille? A verb? Yes, it seems it is… albeit starting from the French. To apostille something is “to add a legal certificate that makes a document from one country valid in another”. Why do lawyers so love to blind us with big words – or, more normally, Latin ones?
Anyway, having been walked through how apostilles (noun) work, I can appreciate their value as an SME treads warily into a foreign market. But where you go to get them drafted and authenticated, that’s another matter that your average friendly local solicitor probably knows little about. And how much do they cost? Probably they are not cheap… and that may be a moderately important issue from your average honey exporter from Rotorua, or artisanal chocolate exporter from Lae in PNG. And that is ultimately the purpose of this particular SELI meeting – to help SMEs enter international trade without being roasted by costs, or potentially bankrupted by the first trade dispute that strays your way. Our working assumption is that the costs and time involved with managing a cross-border dispute (and, sad to say, they must be assumed to be inevitable at some point) would overwhelm the average SME, and that cheaper dispute resolution measures need to be created to reduce the dangers for SMEs going into foreign markets. That takes us towards the use of Artificial Intelligence and other digital processes that keep us away from lawyers charging US$1,200 an hour.
This discussion will be wrestled with in tomorrow’s blog.
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