By Sharon Atieno

The 12th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference held in Geneva, Switzerland concludes with a new trade package dubbed ‘Geneva package’ which contains a series of unprecedented decisions on fisheries subsidies, WTO response to emergencies, including a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, food safety and agriculture, and WTO reform.

With governments spending US$22 billion a year on subsidies paid to primarily industrial fishing fleets to artificially lower fuel and vessel construction costs, enabling them to catch more fish than is sustainable by fishing farther out to sea and for longer periods, the decision on fisheries subsidies will prohibit such support by creating a global framework that limits subsidies for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; fishing on overfished stocks; and subsidies to vessels fishing on the unregulated high seas.

Further, the agreement includes measures that will enhance transparency and accountability for how governments support their fishing sector. The countries committed to further negotiations to build on these disciplines including rules to curb subsidies that contribute to fishing in other countries’ waters and to overfishing and overcapacity—which is a fleet’s ability to harvest more fish than is sustainable—within a nation’s own waters.

With COVID-19 posing a global challenge in access to essential vaccines, therapeutic and diagnostics, the delegates agreed on a partial intellectual property waiver which will allow developing countries to produce and export COVID-19 vaccines.

Members at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference Photo credit: WTO

Also, they agreed to make access to medical supplies and components more predictable in this pandemic – and in the next one, by making notifications timely and comprehensive while putting into account Members’ diverse circumstances especially, those in developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs).

Regarding food safety and agriculture, the Members agreed to take concrete steps to facilitate trade and improve the functioning and long term resilience of global markets for food and agriculture, including cereals, fertilizers, and other agriculture production inputs, particularly considering the specific needs and circumstances of developing country Members, especially those of LDCs and net food-importing developing countries.

“We underscore the need for agri-food trade to flow, and reaffirm the importance of not imposing export prohibitions or restrictions in a manner inconsistent with relevant WTO provisions,” they said.

“We resolve to ensure that any emergency measures introduced to address food security concerns shall minimize trade distortions as far as possible; be temporary, targeted, and transparent; and be notified and implemented in accordance with WTO rules.”

Members at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference Photo credit: WTO

They also committed to making the work of the World Food Programme (WFP) easier by not imposing export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for noncommercial humanitarian purposes.

Ministers also agreed on a process for addressing longstanding calls for reform of the WTO.  The Ministerial Declaration commits members to an open, transparent and inclusive process overseen by the WTO’s General Council, which will consider decisions on reform for submission to the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13).

In addition, ministers adopted two decisions – on the Work Programme on Small Economies and on the TRIPS non-violation and situation complaints – and a Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Declaration for the Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference: Responding to Modern SPS Challenges.

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

“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 this institution. They give us cause to hope that strategic competition will be able to exist alongside growing strategic cooperation.”

DG Okonjo-Iweala expressed her conviction that “trade is part of the solution to the crises of our time” and noted that the WTO “can and must do more to help the world respond to the pandemic, tackle environmental challenges and foster greater socio-economic inclusion.”

Iweala Okonjo, Director General, WTO photo credit: WTO

In his closing remarks, Mr Timur Suleimenov, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Kazakh President and Conference Chairperson thanked the DG for never giving up. “Her determination, her leadership, her perseverance made all the difference. Dr Ngozi, the WTO owes you a great debt.”

He told members: “This week, you have all contributed to making what seemed impossible come to fruition. We have all engaged in frank and sometimes very difficult conversations. We may have not achieved everything that we set out for, but we have delivered, and this is something that all of us should be proud of.”

Mr Timur Suleimenov, 12th WTO Ministerial Conference Chair photo credit: WTO

In a statement, 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.

“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. Recognizing 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,” said Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The meeting ran from 12 to 17 June, 2022. Initially scheduled to end on 15 June, the ministerial gathering was extended by two days to allow more time for negotiations and reaching agreements. It was Co-hosted by Kazakhstan.