An overview of notable recent developments at the World Trade Organization focusing on fish subsidy talks, e-commerce negotiations and trade and health.
In case you missed our Monday column this week (due to email alert issues on that day): India and South Africa have tabled their new IP waiver proposal. More here.
US wants forced labour provisions on fish subsidy talks
We have not yet heard back from the United States on this second IP proposal. But we have heard from the United States on the already quite advanced talks on banning fish subsidies. Negotiators hope to conclude negotiations at a special ministerial meeting in July, after months of painstaking efforts to bridge wide gaps among negotiators.
And now comes the new US administration and says: we want to include a ban on forced labour in fishing vessels! This could well scupper the July deadline. Yet here we are.
The three-page US proposal focuses on the draft fishing agreement’s provisions that ban subsidies to (already illegal) IUU fishing. ILO and NGO reports suggest that slave labour is often associated with illegal fishing activities.
The actual proposed US language is relatively ‘soft’ in the sense that it mainly calls on governments to recognise there is often a link between IUU fishing and forced labour, and that forced labour issues should be part of the WTO members’ future notification and transparency requirements.
Santiago Wills Special and Differential Treatment compromise for fish subsidy deal
WTO fish subsidies negotiations are being held on an almost continuous basis and believed to be in their ‘endgame’.
WTO sources said that the US forced labour proposal was not on the table during a meeting held today in Geneva.
Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO who acts as chair of these discussions proposed a new compromise text on Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries.
The text basically exempts developing countries from such disciplines if this is about supporting poor fishing communities. It also exempts LDCs.
E-commerce – data flows and developing country inclusion on negotiator’s horizon
The 86-country Joint Statement Initiative negotiations on e-commerce are now entering more critical waters.
The conveners of the talks – Australia, Japan and Singapore – last month identified ten topic areas where they hoped negotiatiors could agree on ‘clean text’ by this summer. Clean text means agreement on the basis of a December 2020 draft ‘consolidated text’ that offers relevant options.
Singapore’s WTO envoy, Tan Hung Sen, told a business audience today (27 May 2021) that the last weeks have seen “modest but encouraging progress.”
Agreement on spam and e-signatures is already there. The conveners hope there can be ‘clean text’ on open government data, e-contracts, online consumer protection and paperless trading soon.
The three convening governments have now tried to take the negotiations to the more difficult topic areas. There are plenty of such topics. These include but are not limited to: whether to ban forced source code and cryptography disclosure, whether to update the 1990s telecommunications reference paper (something the EU and the UK support but not many others), digital trade facilitation for goods trade, whether to ban – once and for all – all customs duties on electronic transactions, non-discrimination of digital products and whether to discuss market access for digital goods and services.
During a plenary meeting last week, the WTO participants discussed cross-border data flows. This was not a ‘negotiating’ round proper on this topic, but mainly a session dedicated to information sharing, where research by international bodies and experts was presented.
There are two major divides among the negotiators on data flows topics. The first divide is one among countries that think cross border data flows must be broadly free, where the divisions are mainly about the exceptions to public policy objectives.
This is the famous divide between the US and CPTPP countries vs the EU on the scope of exceptions for privacy protection for instance. The second divide is between this group and a large group of countries that do not want such disciplines to be included at all in the talks. Among them many developing countries.
Tan Hun Sen also said that the conveners intended to introduce a hitherto neglected topic in the negotiations: how to address the concerns of developing countries specifically. “We want to add the issue of development” onto the agenda, the Singaporean negotiator said.
Ottawa Group compares notes on trade and health
The reform-focused group of countries convened by Canada met on Wednesday to discuss the whole spectrum of post-pandemic trade in health products and vaccines. The WTO’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also attended the meeting.
Nothing specific has come out of the meeting, which covered the whole spectrum of topic areas currently under discussion. Canada’s readout says this was: “equitable access to vaccines, including issues such as export restrictions on essential medical goods, manufacturing capacity for vaccines, intellectual property rights, and the transfer of technology.”
A note by Japan’s METI after the meeting articulated Tokyo’s position on all this. “In order to secure access to medical supplies, it is necessary to agree on preventing export restrictions and other measures.” Japan does not mention the proposed waiver on IP protections sponsored by India, South Africa and sixty other WTO members. Instead Japan said: “Promoting technology transfer with the cooperation of vaccine developers will be effective for expanding the production of safe vaccines. Given that industries are working at an unprecedented speed, the real challenge is how quickly technology transfer — which requires enormous amounts of time and human resources — can be facilitated.