Home International News WTO approves 'unprecedented' trade package after fraught talks | International trade

WTO approves ‘unprecedented’ trade package after fraught talks | International trade

The World Trade Organization agreed on an “unprecedented” package of trade deals on health, reform and food security on Friday after disagreements between countries over key issues forced the trade organization to extend negotiations for two days.

The agreement came after WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had previously urged countries to compromise after negotiations failed to reach consensus on ending environmentally harmful fisheries subsidies and completely waiving patents for COVID-19 treatments.

“The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference in the lives of people around the world,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “The results show that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to emergencies of our time.”

The negotiations involving more than 100 trade ministers were seen as a crucial test of the trade organization’s ability to negotiate multilateral trade deals at a time when mounting geopolitical tensions are fueling protectionism and economic decoupling.

Under the package, members agreed to relax intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines and limit, not abolish, subsidies to illegal fishing for at least the next four years. The watered-down deals in two of the most controversial areas under the WTO’s purview have provoked mixed reactions, with some campaigners arguing the agreements didn’t go far enough.

“Overall, this agreement does not provide an effective and meaningful solution to increase people’s access to the necessary medical resources during the pandemic, as it does not adequately dispense with IP on all critical medical devices for COVID-19 and it is not applicable to all countries,” he said. Christos Christou, international president of Doctors Without Borders.

On Thursday, WTO members reached a preliminary agreement on maintaining a moratorium on e-commerce tariffs until the next ministerial meeting, expected next year. The prospect of an end to the moratorium, which would have paved the way for tariffs on digital goods and services, has been a major concern for businesses.

WTO headquarters
WTO’s first ministerial conference in nearly five years has turned into a second day of overtime [File: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg]

Deborah Elms, founder and executive director of the Asian Trade Center, described the extension of the moratorium on e-commerce tariffs as “great news”, but said the outcome generally appeared to be a package that “prevents failure, but also no represents resounding success”.

Elms said the WTO’s failure to reach consensus on measures such as phasing out subsidies for illegal fishing shows the need for reforms in the trade organization.

“After two decades, they cannot stop the subsidies on illegal fishing. Think about that: This was primarily to end subsidies from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” Elms told Al Jazeera, stressing that she had not seen the final package.

“Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by definition should not be happening at all. We weren’t talking about stopping such IUU fishing. No, it involved providing grants to support such activities. This is a terrible failure to deliver what should have been a simple act to save the future planet.”

In the letter outlining the concepts of Friday’s trade deals, Okonjo-Iweala asked members to reflect on the “delicate balance” achieved over five days of nearly 24-hour talk, sometimes marked by expressions of anger. and frustration.

“The nature of a compromise is that no one gets everything they want,” the letter said. “Let’s finish our work tonight so we can honor those waiting for the WTO’s delivery.”

WTO rules require all 164 members to reach consensus on all proposals, and a deadlock on one topic can derail others. The WTO on Wednesday extended the negotiating period in hopes of reaching agreement on key issues after resistance from the likes of India and Indonesia.

Julien Chaisse, an expert on international trade at the City University of Hong Kong, said the agreement marked a “great dawn” for international trade and multilateralism “despite all the fears, threats and challenges”.

“There have been many doubts about this ministerial conference, but in recent days there has been a growing consensus on these issues of systemic importance,” Chaisse told Al Jazeera.

“I think the pressure on this is huge because since 2020 the WTO has been under tremendous pressure from developing countries and NGOs to relinquish intellectual property rights,” Chaisse said. “And the COVID pandemic is not over yet.”

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