WTO gathering : The battleground

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a press conference at the start of the four-day WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva on June 12, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
GENEVA — Ministers start meeting at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the first time since 2017 on Sunday, hoping to break the logjam on several hot-button issues in the global trade body’s in-tray.اضافة اعلان

Led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO makes decisions by consensus, making agreements harder to reach.

Here are the main issues on the table at the 12th WTO ministerial conference, which runs until Wednesday in Geneva:

Covid-19 pandemic
In October 2020, India and South Africa asked the WTO for a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 innovations to aid poorer nations’ pandemic responses. Washington backed the idea of a time-limited IP waiver, but only on vaccines. With discussions deadlocked, the US, India, South Africa and the EU formed a group to negotiate a compromise.

Home to major vaccine manufacturers, the four drafted a compromise text temporarily suspending some patent protections for jabs, which has been submitted to other WTO members.

It would only apply to developing countries and those representing less than 10 percent of annual global Covid-19 vaccine exports — thereby excluding China.

“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic now that we will get this text ready for adoption by ministers,” Sierra Leone’s Ambassador Lansana Gberie, who chairs the WTO’s IP issues council, said in the build-up.

The big pharma lobby is against waiving IP and says the idea is out of date, with vaccine supply now outstripping demand. Public interest groups, meanwhile, say the text is inadequate, by time-limiting the waivers and applying them only to vaccines and not Covid treatments and diagnostics.

Fisheries subsidies
The WTO has spent more than 20 years negotiating a ban on subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of world’s fish stocks. There is cautious optimism that an agreement can be struck during the conference. However, disagreements persist, particularly over so-called special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing countries.

Special treatment for the poorest countries is widely accepted but demands from some self-identified developing countries for exemption from subsidy constraints, including large fishing nations like India, have met resistance.

A draft text sent to the ministers for review would bar exemptions for member states that account for a yet undefined share of production. The length of exemption periods also remains up for negotiation. India has demanded a 25-year exemption.

Okonjo-Iweala has urged countries to compromise to support small-scale fishing, and “the sustainability of our oceans, which is so important”.

WTO reform
Several members including the US and the EU, but also many African countries are calling for reform of the WTO. Rebooting the organization’s dispute settlement system is the most pressing issue, with its appeals tribunal frozen since late 2019 after the US under former president Donald Trump blocked the appointment of new judges, demanding a dramatic overhaul.

President Joe Biden’s administration has also demanded reforms to make the WTO more efficient and to prevent over-reach but has appeared more conciliatory.  Washington has hinted it is open to relaunching the appellate body. But it has not acted to unblock the situation, and many observers believe a reset is not imminent and there are calls for ministers to act.

“It is our collective responsibility, including at the highest level, to ensure that the WTO functions effectively to respond to all members’ needs and contributes to addressing the most pressing issues in the world,” said Okonjo-Iweala.

Since 1998, WTO members have agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions. In Geneva, ministers will decide whether to extend this, as at past ministerial conferences. But this time a group of countries, led by India and South Africa, are contesting the moratorium, saying it has a negative impact on their customs revenues.

Since 2019, 86 WTO members representing 90 percent of world trade have been negotiating e-commerce provisions. However, an agreement at the conference is thought unlikely.

Agriculture and food aid
Several agricultural issues will be on the agenda, with a heightened focus on global food security, which has worsened amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Large agricultural subsidies, blamed for distorting global trade, remain sensitive for rich and developing countries alike.

In 2015, WTO members took the historic decision to eliminate export subsidies for agricultural products. Many now want action on domestic measures that distort trade.

No global agreement is expected imminently.

Cautiously Optimistic
Speaking just hours before the opening of the  first ministerial meeting in nearly five years, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, WTO chief, said “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get one or two deliverables,” on a multitude of pressing issues on the table, from overfishing to addressing the still raging pandemic and a looming global hunger crisis.

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