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WTO clinches trade deals deep into overtime

WTO's first ministerial conference in four and a half years overcame bitter divisions to reach consensus on an 'unprecedented' six-item package deal.

Entrance to the World Trade Organization's headquarters in Geneva
Entrance to the World Trade Organization's headquarters in Geneva (AN/J. Heilprin)

GENEVA (AN) — Negotiators at the 164-nation World Trade Organization's first ministerial conference in four and a half years overcame bitter divisions deep into overtime to reach consensus on a package of six agreements that curb some fishing subsidies, permit generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines, tackle food shortages and maintain a ban on cross-border data tariffs.

After marathon talks that went on for a day and a half longer than planned and included two sleepless nights, the conference of more than 100 trade ministers struck a package of six multilateral trade deals early Friday morning that address some of the planet's most pressing emergencies — and help revive WTO's relevance as a global institution.

WTO’s director-general, Nigerian-American economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said she was exhausted, delighted and "excited that we’ve been able to prove that the WTO can deliver" multilateral outcomes. She called it an "unprecedented outcome" from a conference that will have "very tangible results" for the citizens around the world that the trade ministers are supposed to serve.

The road to agreement is often difficult because WTO decisions require consensus, allowing any single nation to block a deal. "It was not an easy process, an easy road,” Okonjo-Iweala said, laughing. "There were a lot of bumps, just like I predicted. It was like a roller coaster. But in the end, we got there."

The agreement to reduce environmentally harmful fishing subsidies caps 21 years of negotiations on the subject, Okonjo-Iweala noted. "And although it is not the full package ... we were able to say, 'Okay where do we all agree?" she said, calling it merely "stage one" toward a more comprehensive settlement.

U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts said the agreement on fishing subsidies will help curtail overfishing and improve ocean health by creating a global framework to limit subsidies for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. “This is a turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global overfishing," said Isabel Jarrett, manager of Pew's campaign against fishing subsidies.

"Now, WTO members need to bring the treaty into force as swiftly as possible and implement it in good faith," she said. "Recognizing that there are still outstanding issues for WTO members to discuss, we were pleased to see them commit to recommending further rules on harmful fisheries subsidies at the next ministerial conference.”

The deal on a partial intellectual property waiver will allow developing countries to produce and export COVID-19 vaccines. Okonjo-Iweala said it passed after last-minute input from the United States and China.

India's trade delegation had grabbed the spotlight for blocking agreements on the IP waivers and fishing subsidies, though it turned out to be a negotiating ploy. India's Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal hinted as much when he told reporters on the fifth day of negotiations that his delegation still believed the conference "will turn out to be one of the most successful ministerials that the WTO has seen in a long time."

Delegates reached a provisional agreement to reauthorize WTO’s moratorium on applying tariffs to global data exchanges for two years. The data exchanges make possible what the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development estimates to be a US$26.7 trillion market in global e-commerce.

The moratorium will remain in place until March 2024, giving diplomats time to reauthorize it yet again at next year's ministerial conference. It was first imposed in 1998, and WTO delegates reauthorized it at each previous conference.

India had suggested the moratorium ought to be revised to better compensate developing nations, but industry experts argued that any such move would essentially break the internet: It would be unimaginably complex and raise numerous privacy issues if customs officials are required to keep track of and put a value on each of the countless data packets that are exchanged among electronic devices through the vast network of international cables.

A new hand at the wheel

The outcomes may help to at least partially restore WTO's ambition to be seen as the negotiating platform for global trade agreements. It had been a long time since any came out of the Geneva-based organization; its last ministerial conference, in December 2017 at Buenos Aires, failed to clinch a single one. And in 2019, WTO's appellate body for settling trade disputes ground to a halt due to U.S. opposition to refilling judges on its bench.

The only area in which WTO member nations were not able to agree, Okonjo-Iweala said, was on agricultural measures.

A global finance expert, economist and international development professional, Okonjo-Iweala took over the global trade body last year after serving in prominent positions such as World Bank managing director, Nigeria's foreign minister, and board director for Danone, Standard Chartered and Twitter.

She said the food security declaration is an important tool for "allowing the free flow of food and agricultural inputs, especially for humanitarian purposes," by lifting or easing export restrictions on food and exempting World Food Program humanitarian purchases from export restrictions.

Okonjo-Iweala pushed for temporarily waiving vaccine patent protections so developing countries can produce generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines and speed up global vaccination campaigns that can more quickly end the coronavirus pandemic. WTO had long deadlocked over a proposed annual waiver of parts of the 1995 TRIPS Agreement, a major intellectual property agreement, that would allow any nation or company to make a vaccine if it has the recipe and ingredients.

The deal to reduce government subsidies that contribute to overfishing affects coastal communities worldwide that depend on fisheries for food and livelihoods but must compete with government-financed industrial fishing vessels that draw down local fish stocks.

She said the effort to eliminate harmful fishing subsidies "beautifully illustrates the WTO's founding purpose," which is to enhance people's living standards, create jobs and support sustainable development, and is "crucial to the 260 million people around the world whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries."