WTO concludes package of landmark agreements after marathon talks

GENEVA, 17 June 2022 (AFP) On Friday, the World Trade Organization struck a landmark package of deals covering fisheries subsidies, food insecurity and Covid-19 vaccines after intense round-the-clock negotiations.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said trade ministers have struck an “unprecedented” number of agreements that will impact the lives of people around the world.

Negotiations in Geneva started on Sunday and were supposed to end on Wednesday.

But instead, the 164 WTO members spent two consecutive nights before handing over the package around 5:00 am (0300 GMT) on Friday.

“TO DEAL WITH!” EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis tweeted after the conference dragged on for almost 36 hours.

The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) reached an agreement to end harmful fishing subsidies after more than two decades of negotiations, and reached agreements on e-commerce, pandemic response and reform of the organization itself.

“It has been a long time since the WTO has seen such a significant number of multilateral outcomes,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“The package of agreements you reached will change the lives of people around the world.”

But she admitted that “there were many moments when I was afraid that we would come out of MC12 with nothing at all.”

As the talks dragged on, delegates at one point even danced to songs like “I’ll Survive” and “Final Countdown” to blow off steam, U.S. Ambassador Maria Pagan told reporters.

– Fish Deal in the Grid –

The fishery deal was the last to go out of line, and the negotiators worked out the final points in the early hours of Friday.

Negotiations to ban subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of the world’s fish stocks have been underway at the WTO since 2001.

The text was significantly softened, but Okonjo-Iweala insisted that it was better to reach an agreement than to continue negotiations for years.

Dombrovskis admitted to reporters that the agreement is not in line with what the EU would like, but “we decided that taking this first step … is better than not getting any agreement.”

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai also hailed the agreement as a “positive step forward,” stressing that countries have committed to continue negotiations on a more ambitious text.

Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, stressed the importance of taking action to ban subsidies for harmful fisheries.

“This is a rare case where trade rules can make a huge difference in solving a major environmental problem,” he said.

– Consensus –

The Fisheries Agreement marks the first major multilateral deal negotiated at the WTO in almost a decade.

Okonjo-Iweala, who took office in March 2021, has made it her mission to breathe new life into the sclerotic organization.

She wanted to prove that the organization could still be relevant to global problems.

The former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance of Nigeria has positioned herself as a person who knows how to bang his head and conduct business.

“I prefer to talk less and do more,” she said Friday.

As to why the discussions took so long, some delegations accused India of being intransigent on all issues during the WTO discussions, where decisions can only be taken with the consent of each member.

But Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal insisted, “India is not in the way. We were the ones who actually helped reach a unified consensus.”

– Disclaimer of Patents –

The second major issue on the table was the plan to phase out patents on the Covid-19 vaccine, aimed at ensuring more equitable access to vaccines.

After months of bickering and negotiations this week to convince some of the big players in the pharmaceutical industry to compromise the text, the United States and China have finally struck a deal, agreeing on which countries would benefit from the waiver.

China has made a binding commitment not to take advantage of the waiver.

Tai welcomed the deal, saying it would “enable safer, more effective vaccines for those who need them most.”

This agreement shows that we can work together to make the WTO more relevant to the needs of ordinary people.

However, pharmaceutical industry organization IFPMA expressed “deep disappointment” with the deal, warning that the “dismantling” of patent protection would stifle innovation.

Meanwhile, public interest groups condemned the deal for not going far enough.

“This is a technocratic hoax to save reputations, not lives,” said Max Lawson of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, while the charity Médecins Sans Frontières called it “a devastating global failure.”

WTO members also agreed to help alleviate supply shortages that some countries faced during the pandemic.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbated the global food security crisis, ministers agreed on the importance of not imposing restrictions on exports.

But the need to achieve consensus from all members, including from Moscow, meant that their declaration made no mention of Russia or its role in the crisis.

bur-nl / apo / har