Latest news, WTO crisis and reform

WTO Corner: Ølberg General Council chair, acrimonious post MC13 debrief, fish, agriculture

World Trade Organization members are getting back to work after a disappointing ministerial conference held in Abu Dhabi last month.

Norway’s Petter Ølberg to chair General Council

Ambassadors approved a list of chairpersons for key committees for the new two-year cycle leading up to MC14 in Cameroon in 2026 at the general council meeting held late last week in Geneva.

A significant appointment is Norway’s ambassador, Petter Ølberg to become chair of the general council, replacing Botswana’s Athaliah Molokomme.

Until now, Ølberg has chaired the WTO’s dispute settlement body. This role now passes to Saqer Abdullah Almoqbel of Saudi Arabia.

In a sign that dissent over appointments is never far away in the WTO, the chairmanship of the committee for trade in services remains vacant for the time being.

The full list of new committee chairs is as follows:

  • General council: Petter Ølberg (Norway)
  • Dispute settlement body: Saqer Abdullah Almoqbel (Saudi Arabia)
  • Trade policy review body: Adamu Mohammed Abdulhamid (Nigeria)
  • Council for trade in goods: Clare Kelly (New Zealand)
  • Council for trade in services: Consultations ongoing
  • Council for trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS): Sofia Boza Martinez (Chile)
  • Committee on trade and development: Ram Prasad Subedi (Nepal)
  • Committee on balance-of-payments restrictions: Clara Manuela da Luz Delgado Jesus (Cabo Verde)
  • Committee on budget, finance and administration: José R. Sánchez-Fung (Dominican Republic)
  • Committee on trade and environment: Erwin Bollinger (Switzerland)
  • Committee on regional trade agreements: Salomon Eheth (Cameroon)
  • Working group on trade, debt and finance: Caroline Bwanali-Mussa (Malawi)
  • Working group on trade and transfer of technology: Raimondas Ališauskas (Lithuania)

The appointments were made amid strong acrimony at the first ambassador-level meeting after the 13th ministerial conference of the organisation in Abu Dhabi, which led to disappointing outcomes.

Okonjo-Iweala condemns ‘lose-lose’ negotiating stances

WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala condemned the ‘lose-lose’ negotiating stance adopted by certain delegations at MC13.

Okonjo-Iweala accused these members of ‘damaging’ the organisation by preventing progress on key dossiers.

She did not name the delegations which had triggered her frustration.

But the principal target was clearly India, which vetoed an emerging agreement on fisheries subsidies at MC13, India was joined by a small group of other members to prevent ratification of a new agreement on investment facilitation for development.

“MC13 also confirmed what we’ve all known – that adopting a lose-lose negotiating posture is not conducive to results,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“I urge you not to damage an organisation that is critical for some, especially small developing countries, and middle powers. Therefore, as you reflect on MC13, I urge you to think about what is helpful for the people we are here to serve and adopt a win-win approach for the greater good.”

Okonjo-Iweala also warned of a risk that WTO working groups were becoming “burdensome or unpleasant for the chairs or facilitators to operate in”.

“We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where in the future it will be difficult to find ambassadors or ministers willing to take on the role of chair or facilitator,” she added.

Three countries block renewed push to recognise IFD agreement

Chile made a renewed bid at the general council to have the investment facilitation agreement – or IFD – incorporated into the WTO’s treaty architecture as a plurilateral agreement.

The Chilean initiative, made on behalf of the IFD’s 125 signatories, indicates that the IFD’s supporters are unwilling to let this question lie, despite the rebuff at MC13. The organisation’s general council is empowered to take the same decisions as a ministerial meeting.

But the request for the IFD agreement to be added to the WTO’s Annex 4 was again blocked by the opposition of just three countries – India, South Africa and Turkey.

Fisheries negotiations ‘close to consensus’, as ratification numbers rise

On fisheries, the chair of the pre-MC13 negotiations – Iceland’s Einar Gunnarsson – told the council that despite the setback in Abu Dhabi, the organisation had “never been so close to finding consensus solutions on the difficult issues in the overcapacity and overfishing pillar of this work”.

No clear indication was given at the council meeting as to when, and in what format, the fisheries negotiations would resume.

Okonjo-Iweala was upbeat about the progress of efforts to ratify the baseline fisheries agreement which had been agreed at MC12 in June 2022.

She said that 15 more members were expected to deposit their instruments of acceptance for the new treaty by the end of April.

This would take the number of ratifications to 87, meaning that only another 23 would then be needed to reach the target of 110 acceptances. At this point, with two-thirds of the WTO membership having formally signalled their assent, the agreement would be able to enter into force.

Brazil to relaunch agriculture talks

On agriculture, it proved impossible at MC13 to overcome differences over both the substance of the proposed ministerial statement setting out timelines for future work.

Brazil announced that it would re-table a version of the chair’s draft MC13 text on agriculture for discussion in the WTO agriculture committee in the coming months.

Its aim is to get the text adopted by the general council at its meeting in July.

India pushes for WTO work programme on remittances

India called for a work programme to be set up under the auspices of the council for trade in services to examine ways of reducing the costs of cross-border remittances of money.

The response to this request was largely favourable. But some members said that financial barriers to cross-border remittances were generally imposed by private-sector operators, and that there were therefore limits to what could be done at inter-governmental level.

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