Looking at WTO press releases over the last week, the WTOʼs Director-General has been urging Members to find a path forward on a handful of issues — a response to the pandemic (including IP flexibilities), concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations that have been dragging on for more than twenty years, obtaining some movement on agriculture (food security, no restrictions on sales to the World Food Programme) and an outline of a possible work program going forward including on WTO reform. Various press articles have suggested modest progress at best has been achieved in recent weeks and flag challenges to achieving any meaningful results at next week’s Ministerial Conference. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, MC12: A preview, As ministers head to Geneva for MC12, success remains on a knife’s edge, June 9, 2022, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/ministers-head-geneva-mc12-success-remains-knifeʼs-edge. The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine has created even further challenges to achieving any meaningful outcomes next week.
Yesterday’s article in The Globe and Mail had Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala talking about it still being possible to bring in the first two issues listed above without commenting on other items before the Members. See The Globe and Mail, Global agreement on COVID-19 vaccine rights waiver within reach, WTO chief says, June 8, 2022, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-global-agreement-on-covid-19-vaccine-rightswaiver-within-reach-WTO/ (“An international agreement on waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines is within reach ahead of a global trade meeting next week, the head of the World Trade Organization said on Wednesday. In a telephone interview, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala also said an agreement could be reached on fishing subsidies in time for the meeting, when 120 trade ministers from around the world gather at the body’s Geneva headquarters.”).
As reviewed in prior posts, there are a range of matters that have been discussed including a number of joint statement initiatives (at least one of which is concluded among willing Members). See May 11, 2022: Less than five weeks to the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference — what are likely deliverables?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/05/11/less-than-five-weeks-to-the-wtos-12th-ministerialconference-what-are-likely-deliverables/. How many of the issues that have been being worked on will result in actual outcomes or simply be included in a future work program is the question heading into next week. Most bets would say the Ministerial Conference will be lucky to achieve even modest success.
There are a host of documents that are posted on the WTO webcite as documents for the Ministerial. See WTO, MINISTERIAL CONFERENCES: TWELFTH WTO MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/minist_e/mc12_e/documents_e.htm. There is a dray text and revision for fisheries subsidies (but not the current iteration). There is no dray text for the pandemic response as yet although both the IP flexibility dray forwarded to the membership in recent weeks and the broader package of provisions have been in the public domain, but donʼt reflect recent negotiations. The agricultural negotiating group chair’s dray of a text from November 2021 is on the webcite but again doesnʼt reflect developments from 2022. There are lists of issues various developing country groups and least developed countries would like to see as well as a Brazilian paper proposing having ministerial meetings every year versus the current every two years (which has twice slipped to only once in four years). While all these documents provide some background on issues of interest to at least some of the Members, the core documents will likely be those added by Sunday reflecting hoped for outcomes.
The world needs the WTO to be successful next week. Fisheries subsidies are a major problem and fish stocks globally have paid the price of the inaction by WTO Members. The pandemic has raised important issues for trade playing a more important role in minimizing negative effects and improving equitable access to vaccines. And the food insecurity issues which have been grossly worsened by the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine are critical for tens of millions of the world’s population, with trade being an important element to addressing the current issue. And the WTO is in need of fundamental reform if it is to be able to address changing global needs in a timely manner, something it has been unable to do in its first twenty 27 years.
The divisions among WTO Members on the path forward for the WTO and the opposition of many to working with the Russian Federation argue for a minimalist package in fact at next week’s Ministerial Conference. Even a minimalist package may prove illusive in today’s world. Let’s hope for a meaningful success next week.
Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.
To read the full commentary from Current Thoughts on Trade, please click here.