After several sleepless nights and disagreements, the members of the World Trade Organization reached a string of deals in the early hours of Friday, their first meaningful multilateral agreements in years.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala concluded the WTO’s first ministerial conference in four and a half years by heralding an “unprecedented” package of deals on fisheries, Covid-19 vaccines and food security.
“The package agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is in fact capable of responding to emergencies of our time.”
After the deal was announced, some members cried tears of joy as applause filled the halls at the global trade watchdog’s headquarters in Geneva.
These agreements could usher in a new era for the 27-year-old trade body, which has struggled to prove its relevance over the years amid criticism that it lacks resolve. WTO rules require all 164 members to agree before a deal can be made, meaning that one single member can hold up negotiations.
Among Friday’s main achievements was a deal to prohibit both support for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and for fishing in overtaxed stocks in the world’s oceans. It’s an issue the WTO has been discussing for 20 years.
Though the final text fell short of early ambitions, it remains one of the most impactful deal in the WTO’s history, and marks its first significant deal since 2013.
“This is also about the livelihood of the 260 million people who depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “(The agreement) takes the first but significant step forward to curb subsidies for over-capacity and over-fishing by ending subsidies for fishing on the unregulated high seas.”
India and some allies won concessions that scrapped an entire chapter from a proposal that could have threatened some types of subsidies favoring small-scale, artisanal fishing.
The fisheries agreement came with a late addition that will limit its validity to four years unless new rules to fight overcapacity and overfishing are addressed, a clause sought by some African, Caribbean and Pacific Island countries.
The WTO also agreed on a watered-down plan to waive intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, which was slammed by advocacy groups for not going far enough – some saying it could even do more harm than good.
French aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) called the plan a “devastating global failure for people’s health worldwide” for stopping short of including other tools to fight Covid-19, including treatments and tests.
“Without agreement on a true global solution to ongoing access challenges, MSF now urges governments to take immediate steps at the national level to make sure people have access to needed COVID-19 medical tools,” it said in a statement.
Ministers also agreed to lift trade barriers which were blocking the World Food Programme from sourcing products in certain countries, a move to address the growing global food crisis.