It’s been a very intense week at the WTO with plenty of discussions and negotiations taking place in critical topic areas for the institution. There is no breakthrough anywhere yet. Here is an attempt at a little state of play of where some of the most important discussions are: fisheries, IP waiver, agriculture. And also plastics waste. By Chris Horseman, Rob Francis and Iana Dreyer.
We will not follow up specifically on the e-commerce talks that took place this week. But in any case it’s important to notice Nigeria’s submission to the data flow conversation – reported here.
WTO makes plans for first ‘virtual’ ministerial as fish subsidy talks approach end-game
A new revised version of the draft WTO agreement in fisheries subsidies is to be presented to delegations next Wednesday (30 June), as the clock ticks down towards the specially-convened ministerial meeting on fish on 15 July.
The chair of the fisheries negotiations, Colombia’s Santiago Wills, will adapt the existing draft text following extensive negotiations with WTO delegations on the fisheries question over the past few weeks.
These have addressed some of the most sensitive questions in the subsidies dispute, such as the territorial application of any future deal on fish subsidies, and also how to treat fuel subsidies which are not fisheries-specific but which could benefit the fishing sector among other sectors.
US seeking language on forced labour on board vessels
A late addition to the debate has been a proposal by the United States to address the use of forced labour on fishing vessels within the agreement.
The US wants to expand the planned ban on subsidies for illegal fishing to also cover transhipping and refuelling at sea, which, according to Washington, may exacerbate the problem of undetected forced labour.
The proposal has divided those in the WTO who see such language as a useful tool for carrying forward the campaign against forced labour, and others who see it as a potential ‘trojan horse’ in establishing a precedent for links between trade laws and human rights.
Aim for final deal in September
Meanwhile, plans are also being finalised for the 15 July ministerial summit on the topic, which will be the Organization’s first-ever ‘virtual’ ministerial meeting – as well as being the first WTO ministerial meeting of any kind since the Buenos Aires meeting in 2017.
WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is understood to have stressed that this meeting will be political in character, rather than technical. The feeling in Geneva is that technical solutions to the various issues are within reach, but that what is needed is political impetus of a kind which could unblock some of the more sensitive issues.
WTO officials have been exercised by the logistics of the meeting, which will involve ministers located in 20 different time zones, and which will therefore span a period of at least 12 hours, with ministers allocated a pre-notified time at which to make their three-minute-long intervention.
Perhaps unsurprisingly under these circumstances, no final agreement is expected to emerge from this meeting. The objective is rather to narrow down the differences in preparation for a hoped-for final deal to be struck in September.
Stalemate continues on TRIPS waiver discussions
Stalemate continues within the WTO’s TRIPS Council following Thursday’s meeting on how to ensure global equitable access to vaccines.
This week saw the EU present its proposal for an IP response to Covid which took the form of a Draft General Council Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health in the Circumstances of a Pandemic by which the EU aims to clarify certain aspects of the TRIPS agreement related to compulsory licensing.
The EU had earlier this month submitted a communication for discussion at the WTO which focused on limiting export restrictions and keeping supply chains open, encouraging the expansion of production and affordable supply of vaccines to low and middle-income countries, and prioritising voluntary licences and, where this is not possible, compulsory licences.
During this week’s informal meeting of the TRIPS Council the EU explained that its proposal clarifies existing provisions in the TRIPS agreement, including the fact that governments do not have to engage in negotiations with patent holders, that manufacturers will be supported by governments in setting the remuneration to the right holder, and that a manufacturer needs only to submit one notification for all countries to which it wishes to export.
Proponents of a temporary waiver from certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement (IP/C/W/669.Rev1) led by South Africa and India countered that much of the EU proposal is redundant, since it merely reiterates existing rights.
They insist that the existing flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement, though important, are inadequate when it comes to responding to a pandemic of this magnitude, which is why a temporary patent waiver is the only option.
China is said to have welcomed both proposals but asked for more time to examine them, whilst the US has still not provided a concrete follow up to its voicing of support last month for a waiver on patents related to vaccines.
Both the proposal for a TRIPS waiver and the EU proposal on clarifying certain elements of the TRIPS agreement are currently being discussed at the TRIPS Council, with members aiming to produce a report in time for the WTO General Council on 27-28 July. The next informal meeting of the TRIPS Council will take place on 30 June.
Agriculture: WTO members struggle to find common ground on list of deliverables for MC12
Discussions on finding some common ground on the ever-fraught discussions on agriculture trade rules have intensified over the last few months. But finding common ground on a mere potential agenda for negotiations – we are not talking outcomes here – to agree on in late November is proving particularly challenging.
On Monday WTO delegates discussed a report put together by the current chair of the agriculture talks, Costa Rica’s Gloria Abraham Peralta.
Peralta recommended that regarding subsidies – ‘domestic support’ – WTO members should aim for a sort of ‘work programme’ as agreement on substance remains elusive. Market access discussions are at this stage impossible, so Peralta recommended to aim for disciplines on “transparency”.
“Transparency” is also what Peralta recommended to WTO members when it comes to overcoming differences over cotton subsidies.
This week, WTO members also discussed the two topic items that killed off the Doha Round in 2008 as the US and India dug in their heels in these matters at that time: disciplines on ‘public stockholding’ and a ‘special safeguard mechanism’. For the moment there is no sign of common ground, but the chair announced intensified discussions in the coming weeks.
The free-trading CAIRNS Group has also been very active lately in the WTO. On domestic subsidies, a ministerial declaration from this group released this week stated called for “sufficient ambition and specificity to enable meaningful reform of trade- and production-distorting domestic support entitlements.”
Plastics waste – Proponents hope to produce a declaration by MC12
An informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade (IDP) took place this week.
The initiative, which will look at ‘the plastics value chain’ and see how trade in plastic and its waste can be reduced, was launched in November 2021, with mainly China and Fiji in the driving seat back then.
The initiative now has a broader range of sponsors: Barbados, Cabo Verde, Canada, Central African Republic, China, Ecuador, Fiji, The Gambia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Morocco, New Zealand, Switzerland, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
While the EU participated in the conversations this week – it still is not a sponsor.
China would like to see the group draft a common declaration at MC12 that would produce a roadmap of ‘deliverables’ for the following ministerial conference in 2023.