June 6, 2023

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WTO postpones ministerial conference amid fears over new Covid variant

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has decided to postpone its ministerial conference indefinitely after an outbreak of a particularly transmissible strain of the COVID-19 virus forced several governments to impose travel restrictions. The conference was to begin from November 30 and end on December 3 in Geneva.

The decision was taken by the general council of the WTO at an emergency meeting late Friday, a statement from the world body said.

The meeting was called by Council Chair Dacio Castillo.

“Given these unfortunate developments and the uncertainty that they cause, we see no alternative but to propose to postpone the ministerial conference and reconvene it as soon as possible when conditions allow,” Castillo told the council.

“I trust that you will fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation,” he was quoted as saying in the statement.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the travel constraints meant that many ministers and senior delegates would not be able to participate in face-to-face negotiations at the conference. This would render participation on an equal basis impossible, she said.

She pointed out that many delegations have long maintained that meeting virtually does not offer the kind of interaction necessary for holding complex negotiations on politically sensitive issues.

“This has not been an easy recommendation to make … But as director-general, my priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants – ministers, delegates and civil society. It is better to err on the side of caution,” she said, noting that the postponement would continue to keep the WTO in line with Swiss regulations.

The ministerial was to hold negotiations between the countries on important and contentious issues such as subsidies cut in fisheries, agriculture.

The statement said WTO members were unanimous in their support of the recommendations from the Director-General and the General Council Chair, and they pledged to continue working to narrow their differences on key topics like the WTO’s response to the pandemic and the negotiations to draft rules slashing harmful fisheries subsidies.

The director-general and Castillo urged delegations to maintain the negotiating momentum that had been established in recent weeks.

“This does not mean that negotiations should stop. On the contrary, delegations in Geneva should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with,” the DG said.

Okonjo-Iweala said she had scheduled a series of discussions over the weekend with ambassadors and visiting negotiators and that she planned to go ahead with these meetings.

This marks the second time that the pandemic has forced a postponement of the 12th ministerial conference. The meeting was originally due to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Although the council decided to move the meeting to Geneva, Kazakhstan was chosen to chair the meeting and the country’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was due to give a keynote speech at the Conference’s opening ceremony.

“While the action taken is correct, we have to continue with our agenda. An emergency protocol for Covid through virtual meetings should be discussed. Priority has to be for health and an undisrupted supply chain,” said Nisha Taneja, professor, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

Some of the important issues from India’s perspective that were to be addressed include fisheries subsidy. The issue has been under discussion at the WTO for two decades and there’s no consensus as of now. The global trade body is looking at building consensus on the deal to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

“India’s suggestion for special treatment of small and artisanal fishers was not taken on board. There is no regulation for high seas fishing. India was proposing a moratorium on the countries with deep pockets to go on fishing in the high seas. It is also a sustainability issue,” said Jayant Dasgupta, former WTO ambassador.

The other important agenda was the, temporarily waiving some sections of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for Covid vaccines. India is also pushing for trade of vaccines, ventilators without any barriers.

In October 2020, India and South Africa had submitted a joint proposal for temporarily waiving some sections of the TRIPS agreement, to help more countries, especially middle and low income nations get access to Covid-19 vaccines. It will be applicable to industrial design, trade secrets, patents and copyrights.

As of now, more than 100 nations are supporting the proposal, out of which 64 nations are co-sponsors of the proposals at the WTO.

Some experts feel that some members of WTO were trying to rush on these issues without deliberation. “This breather we have got might be good for India. Many issues were sought to be pushed without consensus building,” a senior expert said.

A temporary waiver will enable WTO member nations to overcome legal hurdles owing to patents and will expedite the process of issuing government use licenses, thereby easier access to Covid-19 vaccine.

However, the member nations at the WTO are yet to reach any consensus on this topic, as some developed nations such as the European Union, Australia, the UK among others have opposed the proposal and have raised concerns regarding India and South Africa’s proposal.

According to these developed nations, the TRIPS agreement has inbuilt flexibilities, which allows use of compulsory licensing mechanisms and there is no requirement for a waiver, even a temporary one.

India has expressed its view by saying that these flexibilities are not enough to deal with the challenge of inequitable distribution of vaccines, especially across low income nations.

India along with other G-33 nations was also going to pitch for finding a permanent solution to the issue of public stockholding for food security.

Under the trade norms, a WTO member’s food subsidy bill should not breach the limit of 10 per cent of the value of production based on the reference price of 1986-88. Apprehending that full implementation of the food security programme may result in breach of the WTO cap, India has been seeking amendments in the formula to calculate the food subsidy cap.

It believes that the draft text on agriculture that was firmed up four months ago by a WTO panel is completely imbalanced. It felt this has dampened the prospects of any reasonable outcome on agriculture at the 12 ministerial conference and is not in favour of developing nations.

India’s position is that finding a permanent solution to the public food stockpile issue is linked to the survival of 800 million hungry people across the globe.