Elizabeth Morgan | WTO MC12 – Consensus secured
The 12th session of the Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) concluded in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, June 17, after days and sleepless nights of negotiations to stitch together consensus on several key issues. The conference had been scheduled to end on Wednesday, June 15. This is the first positive outcome since MC9 in Bali in 2013.
The 164 members of the organisation were represented, including the members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), for which Guyana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Hugh Todd, was the lead spokesperson. The members of the group of the Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) were coordinated by Jamaica led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith. Thus, with CARICOM and OACPS, Caribbean representatives and missions in Geneva were actively engaged in these negotiations and in ironing out the consensus secured.
For the WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, this was a major achievement, as the first African and woman to lead the organisation, and for the WTO’s credibility as the body for setting global trade rules.
Multilateral negotiations are never straightforward and this is certainly true in the WTO where the issues are technical and complex, interests diverge, and positions are entrenched. Let us recall that these negotiations, on some issues, are the continuation of the Doha Round, which commenced in 2001, 21 years ago. When the MC12 convened on Sunday, June 12, the expectations for any positive and meaningful outcomes were very low, especially as the meeting was two years overdue and was being held amid geopolitical tensions.
WHAT WAS ACHIEVED?
1. An agreement on reducing fisheries subsidies. It is an agreement addressing a specific environmental issue, fish stock depletion, and it eliminates subsidies to: illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; the fishing of overfished stocks; and fishing on the high seas not regulated by a fisheries management organisation. This agreement was not as ambitious as hoped and will require further negotiations to address outstanding issues within 4 years of entry into force. It was finding consensus here which took negotiators into the wee hours of a sixth day.
2. Pandemic response – a TRIPS waiver for vaccines is permitted up to 2027. A decision on therapeutic and diagnostic products was delayed for six months.
3. Agriculture and food security – A declaration was adopted on the emergency response to food insecurity. Ministers, among other things, resolved to ensure that any emergency measures introduced to address food security concerns should minimise trade distortions as far as possible; be temporary, targeted, and transparent; and be notified and implemented in accordance with WTO rules. Members imposing such measures should take into account their possible impact on other members, including developing countries, and particularly least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.
4. World Food Programme (WFP) exemptions – A decision was adopted in which members undertook not to impose export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased by WFP for non-commercial humanitarian purposes.
5. Moratorium on e-Commerce – A decision was adopted extending the moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmission until the next ministerial conference;
6. WTO reform – Ministers committed to work towards necessary WTO reforms within the general council and its subsidiary bodies. The work is to be member-driven, open, transparent, inclusive, and must address the interests of all members, including development issues. Progress made is also to be reported to the next ministerial conference.
Separate decisions were not adopted on women’s economic empowerment and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Instead, their contribution to inclusive and sustainable economic growth was recognised in the outcome document. The ministers also recognised the global environmental challenges, including climate change and related natural disasters, loss of biodiversity and pollution, taking account of the role of the Committee on Trade and Environment as the forum dedicated to dialogue on these issues.
Once the fatigue and euphoria have receded, the work continues. The Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies has to be ratified by members for entry into force. Decisions have to be implemented. There is still outstanding work on agriculture and services. I should note that agriculture has been a contentious issue throughout the history of the GATT/WTO. Discussions on reform will continue to be difficult. I am noting that MC13 could be held before the end of 2023.
I am aware that the Jamaican and CARICOM delegations dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy to these MC12 negotiations, and so, I take this opportunity to commend them on their commitment to the task.
Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to email@example.com