For two nights, delegates toiled through the hot Geneva summer darkness, trying to thrash out a trade agreement that could satisfy the world. In the end, they clinched a deal around a package of issues on fishing subsidies, e-commerce, food insecurity, and Covid-19 vaccines during a pandemic.
“We succeeded,” said World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in the early morning hours on Friday, 17 June, after extending the talks for two days.
“With an unprecedented package of deliverables not in a long while, has the WTO seen such a significant number of multilateral outcomes,” Okonjo-Iweala said, before the gavel came down to close the meeting.
The WTO’s 12th ministerial meeting, scheduled for four days, began on Sunday, 12 June, originally scheduled to wrap up on the 15th.After the body governing international commerce failed to clinch a deal in its allotted time, Okonjo-Iweala extended the talks.
At 02:16 a.m on that day, the WTO announced: “The Final Informal Heads of Delegation meeting for MC12 will start at 3 a.m. Geneva time, and will be immediately followed by the Closing Session.”
High stakes for Okonjo-Iweala
Geneva was getting tired of having some of its lakeside bus routes disrupted and of security bossing people in directions they preferred not to take, so ending the talks came as a relief to the city.
“The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world. Their outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to emergencies of our time,” the director-general told bleary-eyed ministers.
“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 the institution.”
Some diplomats had warned that failure to deliver an agreement by the body that oversees international commerce could even signal its death knell as a credible body for multilateral negotiations.
Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American economist who took up her post as WTO director-general in March 2021, was seen as a relative trade novice despite her background in development. It was the former finance minister’s first ministerial at the helm of the WTO after the December 2017 ministerial conference in Buenos Aires had failed to lock in any strong agreements.
Covid-19 forced several postponements of the conference, which was initially supposed to be held in Kazakhstan in June 2020. The personal stakes for Okonjo-Iweala on a successful outcome of the meeting were high. She is the first woman, African and American, to lead the WTO.
Countries break 20-year deadlock
Okonjo-Iweala looked tired when she addressed the press in a news conference on Friday before the traffic was rolling in Geneva, but she calmly faced a hostile question from one journalist.
With world fishing stocks depleting, there was urgency for an agreement on fisheries.
“We've got a fisheries outcome – it's been 21 years. And although it is not the full package, rather than continuing the practice of, year after year, negotiating without coming to a conclusion, we were able to say ‘okay, where do we all agree in these fishery subsidies?’,” said Okonjo-Iweala.
“And so, we were able to carve out a part of it. And that is stage one. We'll be able to do it in one or two stages to complete the disciplines that we like to pursue, ultimately. So that's another great innovative approach.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts said it was pleased that WTO members reached a binding agreement to curb some harmful fisheries subsidies, an achievement that will help curtail overfishing and begin to improve the global ocean's health.
“Governments spend $22bn a year on subsidies paid to primarily industrial fishing fleets to artificially lower fuel and vessel construction costs, enabling these large vessels to catch more fish than is sustainable by fishing farther out to sea and for longer periods,” the US-based NGO said in a statement.
Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts' reducing harmful fisheries subsidies project, said: “This is a turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global overfishing. Now WTO members need to bring the treaty into force as swiftly as possible and implement it in good faith.”
“Recognising that there are still outstanding issues for WTO members to discuss, we were pleased to see them commit to recommending further rules on harmful fisheries subsidies at the next ministerial conference.”
Vaccine decision drives opposition outside WTO walls
Of course, keeping everyone happy in multilateral deals is impossible, and some non-governmental organisations rounded on the trade agreements.
On the intellectual property deal, the WTO came under fire from Médecins sans frontières (MSF).
Christos Christou, the international president of MSF, expressed disappointment with “an inadequate outcome” on waiving intellectual property rights for 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, as it does not adequately waive intellectual property on all essential Covid-19 medical tools, and it does not apply to all countries,” said Christou in a statement.
The Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFMA) also opposed the decision to endorse a vaccine rights waiver, saying in a statement that it “sends the wrong message to those carrying out research and development and innovating”.
“It incorrectly points to intellectual property (IP) as a barrier to the pandemic response rather than an enabler bringing healthcare solutions, safely and quickly to patients.”