WTO passes ‘unprecedented’ trade package following protracted talks

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World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (R) is congratulated by Indian Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal after the closing session of the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, early Friday. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EPA-EFE

June 17 (UPI) — The 164-member World Trade Organization agreed Friday to an “unprecedented” package of trade deals after failed negotiations had extended its first high-level meeting in years as it sought to thwart questions swirling around its effectiveness.

The package contains agreements on fisheries subsidies, food safety, WTO reforms and emergency response, including a partial waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, and was finalized early Friday at the end of a nearly weeklong ministerial meeting that was seen by many as a test of the organization’s ability to deliver results.

The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, was the first high-level meeting of the organization since a 2017 gathering ended without agreements on several issues.

Those worries persisted this week when WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on members to work on finding consensus on various roadblocks before extending the meeting until early Friday to allow more time for negotiations.

At the start of the conference on Sunday, she warned the ministers that there was much at stake during the meeting, not only for the WTO but for the world as it faces challenges ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine.

She said that members needed to have “political will to show that the WTO can be part of the solution to the multiple crises of the global commons we face.”

On Friday, she congratulated the ministers for their work, stating they “stepped up and delivered in every area we have been working on.”

“The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world,” she said in her closing remarks while calling the package “unprecedented.”

She added the agreements show that the WTO is capable of responding to emergencies and that they give hope that strategic cooperation can exist alongside growing competition.

“They show the world that WTO members can come together, across geopolitical fault lines, to address problems of the global commons, and to reinforce and reinvigorate this institution,” she said.

The WTO works on consensus, meaning any one country can veto a resolution.

Among the measures agreed to Friday is a partial waiver for COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property rights, which advocates and world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, had been calling for in order to make it easier to manufacture and distribute the life-saving shots amid the pandemic, especially to poor countries.

Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, said the deal will facilitate a global health recovery.

“Through difficult and protracted discussions, members were able to bridge differences and achieve a concrete and meaningful outcome to get more safe and effective vaccines to those who need it most,” she said in a statement. “This agreement shows that we can work together to make the WTO more relevant to the needs of regular people.”

However, the agreement came under swift and strong criticism from charity and health organizations that say it doesn’t go nearly far enough to alleviate barriers poor countries face in accessing vaccines.

“The conduct of rich countries at the WTO has been utterly shameful,” Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance said in a statement.

“This so-called compromise largely reiterates developing countries’ existing rights to override patents in certain circumstances. And it tries to restrict even that limited right to countries which do not already have capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines.”

“Put it simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives,” Lawson said.

Doctors Without Borders also said it was disappointed with the deal, which comes 20 months after India and South Africa first proposed waiving intellectual property rights concerning COVID-19 medical tools.

“This agreement fails overall to offer an effective and meaningful solution to help increase people’s access to needed medical tools during the pandemic … and it does not apply to all countries,” Christos Christou, president of the humanitarian aid group, said in a statement. “The measures outlined in the decision will not address pharmaceutical monopolies or ensure affordable access to lifesaving medical tools and will set a negative precedent for future global health crises and pandemics.”

Among the agreements made Friday, Tai also commended the WTO for maintaining its current stance of zero customs duties on electronic transmissions, stating digital commerce has provided an economic lifeline to many during the pandemic.

The outcome, she said in a separate statement, “will reduce trade costs and provide opportunities for small- and medium-sized businesses while supporting supply chain resilience in a wide range of sectors … that rely on the constant flow of information for their production processes and operations.”

The members also agreed to a fisheries subsidies treaty that Okonjo-Iweala described as the WTO’s first trade deal to be centered on environmental sustainability.

The agreement aims to protect dwindling global fish stocks by cutting subsidies. It also prohibits support for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and commits the member states to further negotiations on the topic.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Britain’s international trade secretary, remarked that the fisheries agreement does not go as far as London would want but “it does go some way to delivering what our oceans need and all those that are dependent on them.

“The agreements we reached this week may not be perfect, but they do provide a platform on which we can continue to build,” she said in a statement.

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