June 26, 2022


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WTO strikes global trade deals after 'roller coaster' talks

WTO strikes global trade deals after ‘roller coaster’ talks

  • Deals reached on food, health and fishing
  • Previously defiant India joins consensus
  • The package was seen boosting the credibility of the World Trade Organization

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Trade Organization on Friday approved the first change to global trade rules in years as well as a deal to boost supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, in a series of pledges that were heavy on compromise.

The deals were struck in the early hours of the sixth day of a conference of more than 100 trade ministers that was seen as a test of countries’ ability to strike multilateral trade deals amid geopolitical tensions heightened by the Ukraine war.

The delegates, who had been expecting a four-day conference, cheered after agreeing to seven agreements and declarations just before dawn on Friday.

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

It had earlier appealed to WTO members to consider the “delicate balance” needed after round-the-clock talks that have at times drawn anger and accusations.

The package, which the WTO chief called “unprecedented,” included the two largest deals under consideration – on fisheries and a partial waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

The Fishing Subsidy Reduction Agreement is the second multilateral agreement establishing new global trade rules reached in the WTO’s 27-year history, and it is far more ambitious than the first, which was designed to cut red tape.

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Trade sources said that at one point, a series of demands from India, which sees itself as the champion of poor farmers and fishermen as well as developing countries, seemed intent on paralyzing talks, but facilities were found.

WTO rules state that all decisions are to be made unanimously, with any member alone able to exercise a veto.

‘Lots of bumps’

“It was not an easy process. There were as many bumps as I expected. It was like a roller coaster, but in the end we got there,” Okonjo-Iweala said, exhausted but beaming at a recent news conference.

A deal banning subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or overfishing has the potential to reverse the collapse of fish stocks. Although significantly reduced in size, it still commands approval.

“This is a turning point in addressing one of the main drivers of global overfishing.” said Isabel Jarrett, campaign manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts to cut harmful subsidies to fisheries.

Okonjo-Iweala said it was the first step after 21 years of talks towards what she hopes will be a more comprehensive deal.

A deal to partially waive intellectual property to allow developing countries to produce and export COVID-19 vaccines divided the WTO for nearly two years, but it eventually passed. It has also come under fire from campaign groups who say it is barely expanding on the existing exemption in WTO rules and is too narrow by not covering treatments and diagnoses.

“Simply put, it is a technocratic hoax intended to save reputation, not save lives,” said Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

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One agreement also reached was to maintain a freeze on e-commerce tariffs, which companies say are vital to allowing the free flow of data around the world. Read more

Overall, many observers said the deals should bolster the credibility of the World Trade Organization, whose ability to intervene in trade disputes had been weakened by former US President Donald Trump, and put it on a path of reform.

European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the WTO meeting had reached results of global importance despite the unprecedented challenges.

“The deep differences here clearly confirm that there is an urgent need for a deep reform of the organization, in all its basic functions,” he said, adding that he will work to get it approved at the next ministerial conference scheduled for 2023.

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Writing by Emma Farge and Philip Blinkinsop; Editing by Richard Boleyn and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.