WTO Fish

Consensus still elusive as new WTO fish subsidies text circulated

Hopes for a significant breakthrough on rules to control fisheries subsidies at the upcoming ministerial meeting on 15 July appear to have receded, as wide gaps between the positions of the 164 delegations on a number of key points show little sign of narrowing.

A revised draft text on the fisheries agreement, tabled on Wednesday (30 June) by the chair of the fisheries negotiations, Colombia’s Santiago Wills, remains littered with square brackets, and in some cases alternate text versions, as WTO governments continue to argue about how state aids to the fishing sector should best be regulated.

Only relatively modest consolidation has occurred since Wills’ last draft text was submitted in mid-May and the vexed question of special and differential treatment to developing countries continues to be the subject of particularly intense debate.

Wills appears to have downscaled his ambitions somewhat as compared with the state of play when the July ministerial was first convened by WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

“The hope is that the revised text will enable ministers to engage in a way where they can effectively provide the political guidance we need at this point in the negotiations,” he said in a statement accompanying the release of the revised text.

‘Peace clause’ and exemptions for developing countries

In an attempt to secure the assent of the developing countries who make up the majority of the WTO membership, Wills is proposing to offer what is in effect a time-limited ‘peace clause’ exempting developing countries from legal challenge under the agreement in respect of subsidies to support “low income, resource-poor and livelihood fishing”.

This is one of the trickiest areas of the agreement to navigate, given that some developing countries have extensive national fisheries – and that a simple blanket exemption for developing countries may not be appropriate for an agreement whose over-riding objective is to help preserve vulnerable fish stocks.

The new draft also states that the ban on subsidies supporting fishing on overfished stocks or where there is overcapacity should be permanently disapplied for artisanal fishers in developing countries operating within their 12-mile coastal zones.

In his statement, Wills was explicit in suggesting that “by addressing a deep concern expressed by many developing Members about their artisanal fisheries sectors, this can help members to engage in a more convergence-oriented way on the rest of the text, including on the remaining SDT provisions.”

‘Economic threshold’ proposal still on the table

But as with the previous version of the text, an alternate version of the SDT provisions is still being floated.

This would set a threshold beyond which developing countries would qualify to be covered by the subsidy ban. The plan would include requirements such as that the member’s GNI per capita exceeded US$5,000, and that its share of the annual global marine capture fish production exceeded 2%.

This approach, understood to be based on a proposal by India, remains on the table – although analysts believe there is a growing majority view that a less economically prescriptive approach would be preferable;

Meanwhile, the draft agreement also features a proposal to create a “voluntary WTO funding mechanism”, in cooperation with international bodies such as the FAO, to generate funds to help developing countries build capacity to implement the provisions of the agreement. This aspect of the deal in particular is being enthusiastically promoted by Okonjo-Iweala.

The sections of the text relating to exemptions for subsidy measures which make a positive contribution to sustainability have remained mostly unchanged from the previous text.

However, Ambassador Wills admitted that this was not because of widespread consensus on these points. Instead, he said, “it has become clear to me that making any revisions to [this part of the text] at this time could risk disturbing the balance of the entire text, due to linkages of this provision to other provisions of the disciplines”.

US ‘forced labour’ proposals not reflected in draft agreement – yet

The draft text does not make any reference to a recent US proposal to include a clause banning subsidies to vessels which use forced labour.

But it is understood that this does not necessary rule out the possibility of such measures featuring in the final agreement. Officials in Geneva commented that the US proposal, and several other proposals from other members, had simply come too late to be captured in this latest draft.

Push towards final compromise agreement

Despite the numerous areas where the text remains unsettled, Wills and Okonjo-Iweala are understood to be still hopeful that the ministerial meeting in two weeks’ time will deliver the kind of political impetus towards a deal that goes beyond what Geneva-based ambassadors could provide.

“Dr Ngozi and I have strong confidence that WTO members will successfully conclude these negotiations,” Wills concluded.

“The aim of this revised text and the upcoming meeting of ministers is to help bring us closer to that goal. It is my sincere hope that delegations and ministers read and approach this text from a common perspective; that is, from the perspective of finding in it a possible compromise.”

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