Hopes fly for WTO fishing subsidies’ deal at Geneva ministerial meeting

Trade ministers will be in Geneva for the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, after two years of postponements. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/PK)

After talking about saving the world's fish stocks for 20 years, there is a whiff of optimism that the World Trade Organization (WTO) might be ready to clinch a deal to stop a fish meltdown on the planet.

On Sunday, 12 June, the WTO begins its first trade ministers’ meeting in five years in Geneva. Covid-19 forced several postponements of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), initially planned to be held in Kazakhstan in June 2020. Security is tight in many parts of Geneva for the four day gathering of the 164 members of the body regulating international commerce.  

It will be the first meeting held under director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who wants big and small nations to forge consensus. The former Nigerian minister has repeatedly urged countries to hammer out a deal to eliminate harmful subsidies for fishing and prove to the world that the WTO can still deliver. 

Advocacy groups for developing nations and organisations that oppose the current functioning of globalisation are also converging on Geneva for the meeting. They will hold meetings and protests, which have sometimes turned violent at past ministerials, so some Geneva transport has been shut down. 

Hope for a fish deal

Regarding a fisheries deal, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), which has offices in Geneva, says:  “a WTO deal on this issue could constitute a major step in helping steer global fisheries in a more sustainable direction.”

The planet is beset with overfishing. The UN, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says almost 60 per cent of assessed stocks are fully exploited, and 34 per cent are fished at unsustainable levels threatening livelihoods and food security.

On 8 June, World Oceans Day, ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, attended a gathering in front of the United Nations in Geneva with Okonjo-Iweala, where an ice sculpture of swimming tuna fish was unveiled as part of a campaign against overfishing. 

He recalled in a message: “our oceans cover over 70 per cent of the planet, provide 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity and feed billions of people. It is our job to conserve these marine resources for future generations.”

IMG_1937 Photo by Peter Kenny.JPG
Campaigners set up a stop overfishing stall ahead of the WTO meeting, where countries will negotiate a deal on fishing subsidies. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/PK)

He noted that the world is expecting WTO members to finally deliver on their mandate and Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 by establishing binding disciplines to prohibit subsidies that harm the sustainability of fisheries.

“Concluding a global legally binding agreement to curb harmful fishery subsidies could be the single most important milestone on ocean sustainability of the year,” said Wills.

Other items on the menu

Fish is not the only food item on the complicated meeting menu, and delegates are expected to toil late each day for trade deals that will not be conclusive but incremental. There five main issues on the agenda include an intellectual property waiver for vaccines to facilitate all countries fighting pandemics, reform of the way the WTO functions, the ever-tricky talks on agriculture, the extension of an international e-commerce moratorium and fish subsidies.

Countries such as India are pushing for a permanent solution on public stock holding programs, meaning government schemes to purchase, stockpile and distribute food to people. Still, the WTO prohibits it in terms of its agricultural rules. A deal is said to be close on the issue, but delegates say India and Tanzania oppose it.

One item expected to face headwinds at the meeting is the continuation of a moratorium on imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions. India and developing countries oppose the suspension of duties because its review would help developing countries generate more revenue through customs levies.

One proposal that has received high global visibility is an intellectual property waiver on vaccines and products related to pandemics, spearheaded by India and South Africa. Initially, they wanted the IP waiver to have a broad scope, but discussions have narrowed down to vaccines only after US President Joe Biden said he supported such a move.

Failure on consensus could drive a wedge

Talks on all the key issues are going down to the wire. Even the names of all the officials who will represent their countries have not been made known, but the EU trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis and US trade representative Katherine Tai are expected to attend.

Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is bound to arise during the talks, but hints raised in Moscow that Russia wanted to pull out of the WTO have not materialised. 

Russia's trade minister is not expected at MC12, but a deputy may show. Moscow’s war actions, which have effectively frozen a vast chunk of global cereal distribution, are expected to arise. 

The WTO agrees by consensus, so one dissenting voice against any proposal on the table can stifle it. Exacting negotiations, such as in the case of fish subsidy regulations, can take years, as seen. 

Discussions are complex and mainly behind closed doors. And as in any multilateral negotiating forum, everyone can't walk away with what they want.

Past ministerial meetings have failed to deliver substantial agreements, but there are hopes that a deal can be clinched on at least one key issue. Failure to get consensus on anything could drive another wedge into multilateral negotiations and send richer countries into smaller bodies that serve their particular commercial interests.

There is talk among some delegates that there is a push by some developed nations to push for WTO reforms that water down the principle of consensus that is opposed by developing and least-developed countries, with India as an opponent. 

The appellate section of the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body is not functioning since there are no more judges for hearings as their mandates have expired, and the United States has not allowed the process to start again.

During the week, acting WTO spokesperson Dan Pruzin said he sensed “a growing cautious optimism on achieving results at MC12”.

He noted that the director-general, the chair of the WTO's General Council, Didier Chambovey of Switzerland, and chairs of various negotiating groups all expressed views along those lines.