WTO Opens with Note of ‘Cautious Optimism’ on Prospects for Agreement over Fisheries Subsidies and COVID Vaccine IP Waiver
WTO Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaking just ahead of the opening of the 12th Ministerial Conference of WTO on Sunday.

The World Trade Organization’s Director General Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the potential for WTO members to reach long-delayed agreements on issues such as a limited IP waiver for COVID vaccines as well as a decision to curb harmful fisheries subsidies that allow big industrial rigs to plunder the oceans  – depleting global fish stocks and harming food security for billions of people. 

Iweala spoke at a press briefing Sunday just ahead of the opening of WTO’s long-delayed 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) that afternoon. The conference in Geneva, the first ministerial meeting in five years, will consider a newly-published draft text that would end subsidies to long-range fishing fleets operating on the “high seas”. The draft text also would require countries to  invest in oceans maintenance to preserve fish stocks in coastal waters, offset any subsidies they may continue to offer.  

MC12 also will attempt to finalize a long-disputed agreement on a limited waiver on intellectual property for COVID vaccines. And in response to the global food security crisis triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine, members will will consider a draft ministerial decision exempting the World Food Programme from export restrictions on agricultural products – levied by many countries in the wake of the halt to exports of Ukranian and Russian food and agricultural inputs. 

Civil society groups, however, protested being locked out of the physical conference corridors on opening day, saying that the last-minute move by WTO, ostensibly on security grounds, had “sidelined” voices of dissent at the meeting, being attended by over 100 trade ministers.  

Iweala – ‘You have to get us over the finish line’

Director General Ngozi Okonjo Iweala next to co-sponsor Kazakhstan’s MC12 Chairman Timur Suleimenov

In her formal statement at the conference’s ceremonial opening, Iweala urged WTO members to move ahead assertively on the wide range of issues before them – and thus ensure the continued relevance of the global trade body to multilateral policy-making. 

“Strengthening the multilateral trading system is a global public good that we have collectively and carefully built up over 75 years,” Iweala said. Her speech set out key points of focus for the debates of the next three days – around agriculture and food security, as well as draft agreements on fisheries subsidies and a waiver on some WTO TRIPS provisions on the use of intellectual property – for the purpose of COVID-19 vaccine production. 

“I hope as ministers you can work even better together to complete nearly completed deliverables. So this organization can be put back on a result focus trajectory,” she urged, noting that the fisheries decision has been over 20 years in the makaing.   

On the much discussed IP waiver – as well as a companion  “trade and health” draft declaration reducing barriers to trade in essential medicines and inputs, Iweala urged ministers to “please let’s do it.

“You have to  get us over the finish line. Get us an agreement on the response to the pandemic…  for millions of people to access affordable vaccines and  medical countermeasures – in this and future pandemics.”   

Critics say IP waiver language verging on irrelevance

Critics on both sides of that debate, however, slammed the draft version of the IP waiver text -although the final text of that has not yet been formally released by WTO.  But it is said to be based on a so-called “outcome document” published in May after weeks of final negotiations by co-sponsors India and South Africa along with the European Union and the United States.

See related story here:

After Months of Deadlock, WTO’s TRIPS Council Will Finally Discuss Intellectual Property Waiver Compromise

Some medicines access advocates have even suggested that countries should walk away from the text, which has been limited in scope to only to vaccines and not treatments. Critics also say they fear that the language of the new “waiver” could subtly undermine existing WTO flexibilities enshrined in the original 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and the 2001 Doha Declaration, which together allow countries to issue “compulsory licenses” for vaccine production in times of public health emergency.

Said Jamie Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International the new TRIPS waiver proposal in fact “includes the most restrictions [to date] on which countries can import or export vaccines.  No other agreement placed restrictions on which countries can export vaccines under a compulsory license, but this one does, excluding most countries that currently have vaccine manufacturing capacity.” He was speaking at a civil society press briefing earlier Sunday.    

Pharma opponents, meanwhile, say the IP waiver would inhibit innovation at a time when low- and middle income countries are facing a surfeit of vaccines that they cannot absorb  – rather than the dearth experienced in the first phase of the 2021 rollout. 

“Today, it is widely accepted that the issue is not vaccines but vaccinations,” said Thomas Cueni, Director General, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), in a comment to Health Policy Watch. He added that for the past year, the “real challenges” have been more around trade and supply side barriers. “So it is really puzzling why so much energy is going into a waiver that we don’t need and has and will do little to tackle its stated aim, e.g. vaccine equity.  

“A TRIPS Waiver on vaccines would never have contributed to a single more vaccine – for that you need voluntary know-how sharing and tech transfer – but it would do harm to future pandemic preparedness because of the signal it sends.”

Fisheries  – can a deal finally be reached ? 

The draft fisheries text has, on the other hand, is being promoted by WTO as a deal that is indeed inching closer to the finish line – with broad buy-in.

And it has been welcomed by a broad array of environmental NGOs, such as the World Wildlife Foundation, as well as by former US trade ambassadors from both Democratic and Republican parties for its long-overdue moves to protect ocean fish stocks, 90% of which are fully exploited, over exploited or already depleted, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

The draft text represents the fruits of more than 20 years of negotiations over an estimated $35 billion annually doled out by governments in fisheries subsides.  About $22 million, or two-thirds of those subsidies directly contribute to the depletion of global fish stocks, harming food security and nutrition, recent studies say. The risks are particularly grave for people in low– and  middle-income coastal communities across Africa and Latin America, highly dependent on local fish protein for healthy diets. 

Coastal fishermen and women in those same communities have also seen a depletion in their catches, and thus livelihoods, with no means to compete with big industrial rigs scraping the ocean floor just outside of their territorial waters – and then selling the fish to wealthy nations on global markets. More than 820 million people depend on fisheries and aquaculture for food, nutrition, and income, according to FAO.

“The agreement is not everything we might have wanted. It’s not everything anyone wanted, and that’s the nature of negotiations. But it is a remarkable achievement. It goes beyond anything that has been agreed previously on this topic,” said Alice Tipping, of the International Institute of Sustainable Development, speaking at a Sunday morning press briefing on the fisheries issue, co-sponsored by IISD and WWF, among others. 

Key to the draft agreement are prohibitions on subsidies that enable fishing outside a country’s national waters, incuding “a standalone prohibition on subsidies for fishing in the unregulated high seas, and those apply to all members equally.” The text also requires that future subsidies within a country’s territorial waters be accompanied by fish and ocean management measures to preserve stocks – with a proposed 7-year transition period for low- and middle-income countries to develop and invest in such management systems. 

Agreement still faces rough waters 

Shailendra Yashwent, senior advisor with Climate Action Network

Even so, the agreement still has rough waters to navigate to final approval, with some developing countries like India, as well as some civil society groups protesting its provisions as being tilted towards rich countries that have ample money to spend on oceans management to offset their continued high subsidies.

Dveloping countries need longer than the seven years proposed in the text to transition to new ocean management formulas, the critics say, even if those aim at ensuring the long-term maintenance of fish stocks and oceans health. Removing subsidies too rapidly could harm “artisanal fisheries” in poor countries, that rely on very small handouts for subsistence livelihoods, they add.

Developing countries subsidies, per capita, also are miniscule in comparison to those in developed countries, pointed out  Shailendra Yashwent, a journalist and senior advisor with the Climate Action Network, who also spoke at the fisheries press briefing. 

“India gives only $141 million USD as total subsidies to the sector, which means the subsidy for (an Indian) fishermen is approximately $14 per year per annum, which is nothing compared to $4,956 in the USA, $8,358 in Japan and a hopping $31,800 in Canada,” he pointed out, “and many of those [Indian fishermen] involved in the trade are permanently impoverished.  

“So like the carbon space argument in climate negotiations, the India government says that it wants the countries that have provided huge subsidies for unsustainable fishing in the past to first take the responsibility for significantly cutting down.  

At the same time Yashwent cautioned against attempts by India or other developing countries to throw out the agreement so long overdue: “It is really my hope that middle path has found that India does not block negotiations while protecting the interests of small scale fishermen. 

“India’s position, I truly believe, should not be at the cost of an agreement that is already 22 years in making. And any delay now will allow the industrial fishing fleets of rich nations to wipe out the remaining marine life and cause an irreversible collapse of marine systems and the humanity that depends on it.”

Unsustainable agriculture subsidies, plastics pollution – advancing dialogue 

Timur Suleimenov, chief of staff of the president of Kazakhstan, which is co-hosting MC12

This week’s conference also aims to set out frameworks for future dialogue on, and potentially negotiations over, other looming, environmental health issues that touch the WTO such as: how global trade rules are enabling the burgeoning plastics and environmental pollution of land and water resources; billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies that harm climate and biodiversity; as well as the even more challenging task of reforming trade rules around fossil fuel subsidies, currently estimated to be about $5.9 trillion annually

But the focus at this MC12 on those themes, at least for now, will be more around building long term collaborations and understandings – rather than negotating potentially binding decisions, one observer told Health Policy Watch: 

“They represent important opportunities to identify ways forward on a range of trade, environmental and sustainable development issues.”  

Cross-cutting to all of the talks will be the challenges of ensuring the future viability of a rules-based system for global trade – to which leading countries adhere despite the war in Ukraine that has sharpened the already yawning geopolitical chasm between big and emerging powers, including the United States, China, Russia, and India.

Said Timur Suleimenov, chairman of the conference originally to have taken place last year in Kazakhstan, and which the country is now co-hosting in Geneva. “Over the next three days, the world’s eyes are on the WTO.”

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