GENEVA (AN) — The U.N. postal agency opened the third Extraordinary Congress in its nearly 145-year history on Tuesday with a vote to reject a demand by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration that it overhaul international delivery rates.
The 78-57 vote to reject "Option B," with 9 nations abstaining, came on the first day of the Universal Postal Union's three-day Congress. Others among the approximately 150 countries represented did not participate in the secret ballot, according to a statement from UPU.
The Extraordinary Congress in Geneva, which runs through Thursday, was called largely to focus on what to do in the face of the Trump administration's threat last year to withdraw the United States from the treaty signed on October 9, 1874 that is the basis for the UPU, a Swiss-based international organization that coordinates mail activities among its 192 member nations and territories.
"We have come together here in Geneva to decide on one question, and one question only, the issue of remuneration rates," UPU's secretary-general, Bishar Hussein, said in opening the Congress.
"Before going further, let me say that over the years since the introduction of the remuneration system at our Universal Postal Congress in Tokyo in 1969, we have recognized the system is not fit-for-purpose, but could not be fixed overnight," he said. "It is, therefore, regrettable that the new rates could not come soon enough to prevent the necessity of holding this Congress."
The Trump administration complained that the inbound packages to the United States from China and other countries enjoy lower remuneration rates than what domestic shippers pay. The remuneration rates are the tariff or compensation paid by the “sending” country to the “receiving” country.
The UPU has said the system it uses to calculate remuneration rates is typically reviewed and improved during each quadrennial Congress. The next Congress is scheduled for August 2020, and the remuneration rates that are decided there will come into effect in January 2022.
U.S. departure in the balance
U.S. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, head of the American delegation in Geneva this week, argued the international organization is not keeping up with 21st century realities of online commerce.
He said that when Trump "found out the United States is being forced to heavily subsidize the import of small parcels in a way that costs our Postal Service hundreds of millions of dollars a year and costs our economy tens of thousands of jobs, he called me into the Oval Office and simply said, 'Fix it.' "
For 11 months, Navarro said, he also has been "working with a top-level team preparing for a possible seamless exit" from UPU, which is headquartered in the Swiss capital Bern.
"America’s strong preference is for the measure known as Option B. With this option, all members of the UPU would be allowed to immediately self-declare rates," Navarro said in a speech. "While this option might cause some very short-term disruptions, it is the clearest, cleanest, fairest and quickest path to a reform that is long overdue."
However, Navarro conceded the Trump administration's "second acceptable path is the multi-speed option. It would allow the United States to immediately self-declare rates while other countries would achieve that goal over a five-year period."
"The most important thing that I can tell you about this option is that it already represents a very significant compromise of the United States," he added. "The mission here today is to retool this system for the brave new world of e-commerce. As we say in America: You know what to do."
That second option was due to be voted on Wednesday. If that option is rejected, the Trump administration is almost certain to make good on its threat to exit from the UPU on October 17.
UPU is one of the two earliest international organizations that became United Nations-affiliated agencies in the late 1940s. It was created out of the 1874 Treaty of Bern that resulted from a Swiss-hosted international conference to regulate mail delivery among nations.
Hussein told a press conference that "the departure of any country, first of all, is undesirable because no country has ever left the Union since 1874. This is the first time we have had this situation."
He warned of serious disruptions to international mail and shipments if the United States were to leave UPU "because the traditional system will completely shut down according to our current rules."
Hussein, however, said he remained "very optimistic we are going to find a solution here. Countries have come up with different positions, but we have a solid track record. We have survived two world wars. And the universal postal union has always reinvented itself."