WTO conference: the decisions

WTO conference: the decisions

The World Trade Organization’s 12th ministerial conference wrapped up Friday after five days of round-the-clock negotiations, securing a range of landmark deals.

The talks focused on five major themes: pandemic response, fisheries, food security, e-commerce and WTO reform.

Here is an overview of what was decided:

– Pandemic response –
After two and a half years of battling Covid-19, the WTO’s 164 member states managed to reach agreement on a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, available for developing countries for a five-year period.

The topic had been hotly debated ever since India and South Africa first pitched the idea of waiving patents on vaccines and other tools to battle Covid in October 2020.

After months of wrangling, and talks going down to the wire this week to win over some major players in pharmaceutical manufacturing to a compromise text, the United States and China finally clinched the deal by agreeing on which countries would benefit from the waiver.

Beijing had vowed in May that it would not take advantage of special and differential treatment accorded to developing countries, but Washington wanted China’s exclusion from the agreement in writing.

In the end, the two agreed that China’s promise would be binding.

The countries also agreed that within six months, they would determine if the waiver could be extended beyond Covid vaccines to also include other pandemic-fighting tools, like diagnostics and treatments.

In a separate text, the countries agreed to “exercise due restraint in the imposition of export restrictions” on all Covid vaccines and other medical tools used to counter the virus, including the components and ingredients needed to make them.

– Fisheries –
After more than two decades of negotiations towards banning fisheries subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of the planet’s fish stocks, a deal was finally sealed in the early hours Friday.

The WTO did not immediately publish the text, but sources close to the talks said the agreement had been dramatically slimmed down due to pressure from India.

WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala hailed the trade body having “concluded an agreement with environmental sustainability at its heart.”

The deal, she said, targets subsidies that contribute to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, and bans support to fishing in areas where fish stocks are overstretched.

The agreement, she added, marks “a first but significant step forward” towards reducing the fishery subsidies that contribute to overfishing on unregulated high seas.

– Food security –
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket to the world, has spurred dramatic shortages of grain and fertiliser, driving up prices and threatening hundreds of millions of people with hunger.

Countries agreed on a declaration on the way forward for tackling the global food insecurity, but the text does not mention Russia’s war in Ukraine or the impact it is having on the crisis.

Instead, it stresses the importance of “not imposing export prohibitions or restrictions” which are inconsistent with WTO rules.

The text highlighted that trade disruptions, record prices and excessive volatility for food and agricultural products have a disproportionate impact on poorer countries.

It also voiced concern that rising prices and costs “could have lasting consequences for global food security in the coming years”.

It said any emergency measures introduced to address food security concerns should “minimise trade distortions as far as possible” and be “temporary, targeted, and transparent”.

And it recognised that building up food stocks can contribute to domestic food security goals, but encourages members wishing to get rid of surplus stocks to release them on international markets in line with WTO rules.

In a separate agreement, members also decided not to impose export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs bought for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the UN’s World Food Programme.

The decision was taken because WFP’s “critical human support” has been “made more urgent as global hunger levels have increased sharply”.

– WTO reform –
The sclerotic WTO has been badly in need of updating its ways of working, with its rules having hardly changed since it was founded in 1995.

As expected, countries did not elaborate a detailed programme, but they did lay out a rough sketch of a way forward.

The text envisions “reforms to improve all its functions” to ensure it can function properly.

It calls in particular for the organisation’s dispute settlement system to be fully operational again by 2024.

Washington brought the system to a grinding halt in December 2019 after years of blocking the appointment of new judges to the key Appellate Body, freezing the tribunal.

– E-commerce –
Since 1998, WTO members have agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions.

The moratorium has been extended at each ministerial meeting since then, but this time, a group of countries, with India and South Africa in the lead, argued that it was having a negative impact on their customs revenues and should not be continued.

In the end, these countries were convinced to stick with the moratorium until the next ministerial meeting, which should be held before the end of 2023.

If no new decision is reached, it will automatically expire on March 31, 2024. (AFP)


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