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WTO proposes March ministerial amid efforts to keep talks alive

The postponement of the WTO ministerial meeting has many worried that important discussions on issues like intellectual rights over Covid vaccines could suffer. (Credit: Pixabay)

The World Trade Organization will reschedule its major ministerial meeting for the first week of March 2022, following the appearance of a new Covid variant. Delegates are worried that momentum for crucial talks will be lost.

After postponing the meeting at the last minute on Friday due to the tightening of travel restrictions to halt the spread of the new omicron variant, the WTO proposed on Monday to pushing the in-person gathering to the first week of March 2022, “if conditions allow”, according to a letter sent to delegates on 29 November.

There is no mention of whether the gathering would still take place in Geneva, but sources said that it was the most logical choice.

Over 200 ministers and 4,000 trade officials were meant to travel to Geneva this week for crucial talks at the WTO, where progress was expected in a number of thorny issues including fishing subsidies and intellectual property barriers on Covid-19 vaccines.

Extending a moratorium on electronic transmissions that ends this year – another critical issue that has seen growing resistance from developing countries – was also due to be debated. Among other topics, three ministerial statements on plastics, environmental sustainability and fossil fuel subsidies were also due to be released on Wednesday.

The news took delegates by surprise on Friday, with most still in the dark on Tuesday on how and which negotiations would be able to go ahead.

Commenting on the proposal to push the meeting to March, one delegate told Geneva Solutions that “if we wait till next summer, we worry that we will lose momentum on some of the key negotiations”.

Another delegate said that while the “postponement is disappointing, the work continues”. “We are reassessing on the best way to maintain the momentum and hope to readapt to the circumstances in the coming days.”

Delegates urged to seal fisheries deal, resolve vaccine rights waiver

This is the second year in a row that the meeting is delayed, further stalling progress for a deal to end harmful fishing subsidies. After 20 years of negotiations, a draft text was presented last week for ministers to debate, sparking hope that an agreement would be struck this time around.

In its letter, the WTO’s general council asked state members to “show flexibility and allow negotiators in Geneva to close the final gaps” in fisheries subsidies negotiations, given that they had “progressed substantially”. An informal meeting for interested delegations on the topic was organised for Wednesday morning.

“Although we are disappointed that the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference has been postponed due to the new Covid-19 variant and related travel restrictions, we support the director-general’s decision to prioritise the health and safety of attendees and to ensure that WTO minister-level discussions are as inclusive as possible,” Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fisheries subsidies program, told Geneva Solutions.

“We urge governments to maintain momentum around the possible conclusion of the WTO fisheries subsidies agreement and to sustain a level of ambition that will meaningfully curb harmful fisheries subsidies and help our overfished ocean begin to heal.”

Members were also urged to “quickly converge on a WTO response to the pandemic” and “find a sensible solution on the intellectual property aspects”. Unequal vaccine distribution between poor and rich countries has propelled a call for countries to waive protections for vaccines and other Covid-related treatments, with South Africa and India leading efforts on the trade front.

The TRIPS Council, which oversees intellectual property, went ahead with a meeting on Monday despite the delay of the conference, showing that proponents of the waiver are not ready to loosen the grip.

On other key matters, there are discussions for the rules on domestic regulation of services to be formally adopted on Thursday or Friday, while talks on agriculture, which are far from reaching a conclusion, have been postponed and might not resume until much later on.

A miss for the environment?

While not on the official agenda, the environment was also supposed to get its moment in the spotlight this week. Three ministerial declarations on plastics, environment sustainability and fossil fuel subsidies, backed each by more than 50 states, were due to be launched publicly on Wednesday.

One of the statements, co-led by China and Fiji and signed by the European Union, Australia, Canada, Russia and a number of countries from Asia, Latin America and Africa, would call for discussions on how to “reduce unnecessary and harmful plastic products”.

A draft text which is already online mentions over 60 states that have co-signed it. Helionor de Anzizu, staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), who has been following the initiative closely, told Geneva Solutions that the postponement of the ministerial meeting might not necessarily have a major impact for talks around plastics.

“Because the text is already there and 60+ states have officially said they want to continue to work on plastics pollution, it already proves that there is important commitment,” she said.

Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastics policy manager for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), told Geneva Solutions that while the statement by no means solved the plastics problem, it would be an important first step for the WTO.

The draft declaration also mentions negotiations at the UN Environment Assembly for a binding treaty on plastics, which are expected to kick off in February. “It would send an important signal ahead of UNEA in February that the trade ministers are also supporting that process,” Lindebjerg noted.

He added that the initiative was backed by countries from all regions, showing important recognition that plastics was an issue that needed to be tackled at a global scale. While the US had not signed up to the WTO statement, secretary of state Antony Blinken announced on 19 November that the US would support a global treaty on plastics as he visited the UN Environment Programme’s headquarters in Nairobi.

De Anzizu, who also viewed positively the linkage between the two processes, warned, however, that it was “important that the processes are coordinated and that UNEA is recognised as the main space for addressing the plastic crisis, with the support of the expertise on trade issues from trade experts from the WTO.”

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, director of the Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs (TESS), a partnership between the Graduate Institute and UNEP,  told Geneva Solutions that co-sponsors of the statements are “currently considering options for rescheduling the launch event under an adapted format given the new travel and health regulations”.

“Despite the postponement of MC12, there is strong commitment among the members that have co-sponsored one or more of three statements to maintain the momentum and move ahead with the work,” she added.