wto: What has the WTO ministerial conference achieved?



GENEVA: The World Trade Organization’s 164 members approved a series of trade agreements early on Friday that included commitments on fish and pledges on health and food security after more than five gruelling days of negotiations. Here are details on those agreements:
PANDEMIC RESPONSE
India and South Africa and other developing countries have sought a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for over a year, but faced opposition from several developed nations with major pharmaceutical producers.
A provisional deal between major parties – India, South Africa, the United States and the European Union – limited to vaccines emerged in May and this is largely what has been adopted.
Developing countries will be allowed to authorise the use of a patent for production and supply without the patent holder’s consent for five years, subject to a possible extension. The production need not be predominantly for the domestic market, meaning more exports are allowed to ensure equitable access.
Within six months, WTO members are to consider extending the waiver to therapeutics and diagnostics.
China has voluntarily opted out of the waiver, something the United States had insisted on.
Campaign groups had urged members to reject the text, saying it was too narrow and was not a real IP waiver at all.
The WTO also agreed a declaration on its response to COVID-19 and preparedness for future pandemics, stressing the needs of least developed countries.
Members further recognised that any emergency trade measures should be proportionate and temporary and not cause unnecessary disruptions to supply chains. Members should also exercise restraint in imposing export restrictions on essential medical goods.
FISHING
WTO members struck an agreement to reduce subsidies that contribute to over-fishing, a step that environmentalists say is vital to helping fish stocks recover.
Talks have been going on for 20 years and the deal is only the second multilateral agreement on new global trade rules that the WTO has agreed in its 27-year history. The fisheries outcome was seen as a critical test of the WTO’s own credibility.
The agreement says that no WTO member shall grant any subsidy for vessels or operator engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or for fishing of an over-fished stock.
Developing countries will be exempt for two years.
Members themselves will carry out investigations into activities off their coasts and all member will be required to notify the WTO of their fishing subsidy schemes.
India had earlier been one of the biggest critics.
Talks will however continue to achieve a more comprehensive agreement to crack down further on fisheries subsidies, ideally for the next ministerial conference, likely to be in 2023.
FOOD SECURITY
The WTO sought to respond to a food supply and price hike crisis exacerbated by export disruptions from major cereal producers Ukraine and Russia.
WTO members agreed in a declaration that they would take concrete steps to facilitate trade of food and agriculture, including cereals, fertilizers and other agricultural inputs, and reaffirmed the importance of limiting export restrictions.
WTO members also agreed to a binding decision not to curb exports to the World Food Programme (WFP), which seeks to fight hunger in places hit by conflicts, disasters and climate change. Members would still be free to adopt measures to ensure their own food security.
E-COMMERCE MORATORIUM
WTO members have extended a moratorium on placing customs duties on electronic transmissions, from streaming services to financial transactions and corporate data flows, worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
The moratorium has been in place since 1998. South Africa and India had initially opposed an extension, saying they should not be missing out on customs revenues.
The extension runs to the next ministerial conference, which would normally be held by the end of 2023, but in any case will expire on March 31, 2024.
WTO REFORM
All WTO members say the organisation’s rule book needs updating, although they disagree on what changes are required.
Most pressingly, its dispute appeals court has been paralysed for nearly two years since then-U.S. president Donald Trump blocked new adjudicator appointments, which has curbed the WTO’s ability to resolve trade disputes.
Members committed to work towards necessary reforms of the WTO to improve its functions. This work should be transparent and address the interests of all members, including developing countries, which are afforded special treatment.
The WTO committed to conduct discussions so as to have a fully functioning dispute settlement system by 2024.
The declaration highlighted the growing importance of services trade and the need to increase the participation of developing countries.
The members also recognised global environmental challenges including climate change and related natural disasters, loss of biodiversity and pollution. Some experts believe issues about the environment have the potential to give the body a new vitality and purpose.
(Reporting by Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Toby Chopra)
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