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Vaccines, illegal fishing, e-commerce: the new World Trade Organization deal

Last night was the announcement of a new and “unprecedented” agreement within the World Trade Organization. Quotation marks for the terms of the press conference to present the final texts of the organization’s ministerial conference. The agreements promise to inaugurate interesting agendas, yes, but, due to the characteristics of the WTO and the current world context, they will be the result of all kinds of criticism.

There were six main points present in the agreements. The relaxation of intellectual property rights for vaccines against Covid , food security, combating illegal fishing and its subsidies, e-commerce and reform of the governance of the WTO itself. For the organization’s director-general, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, “the package of agreements will make a difference in the lives of people around the world” and “demonstrate that the WTO is indeed capable of responding to the emergencies of our time. ”.

When the former Nigerian minister speaks of “emergencies of our time” she refers both to the pandemic and to food insecurity directly related to the war in Ukraine, since Russia and Ukraine are among the biggest grain exporters in the world, with this trade passing through the Black Sea. And indeed, it is fair to say that the WTO addressed these issues at its ministerial conference, held under immense pressure.

Pressure

The last conference WTO ministerial meeting had been held in Buenos Aires in December 2017, more than four years ago. The conference that should have been held in Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan, was postponed twice, because of the Covid-pandemic . The postponements, plus the protests that took place in the country at the turn of 2022 to 2022, motivated the change of location, to Geneva, headquarters of the WTO. Even so, the Kazakh authorities were the main organizers.

In addition, the Buenos Aires conference did not present important final agreements. The years from 2017 to 2019 were of stoppage in the WTO, since the then US government, under President Donald Trump, froze several processes for the appointment of judges, paralyzing the judgment of disputes between countries, and boycotted the process of reforming the organization’s governance.

The current conference began, then, under the tension of being the first in years, after a failed conference, at a time when the world is trying to recover from a pandemic, with production chains affected, economic pressure and a war involving two countries essential to the world trade in commodities. Leaving without an agreement, some agreement, would be shameful and unacceptable.

The delegations knew this, so much so that the conference had its deadline extended by almost 48 hours of virtually uninterrupted trading. The faces of several key-country negotiators were genuinely exhausted, and this was even a joke in the closing speech of the Director-General, stating that the Kazakh ambassador will never want to hear or read the acronym “MC12” again.

Decisions

The point is that any agreement that needs to be approved unanimously in an organization with 27 members will have flaws. Even more so those elaborated in these pressured circumstances. The agreement on vaccines, for example, has been criticized both by developed countries, who claim that it threatens development capacity, and by poorer countries, who claim that the agreement is short-lived and adds little to what already existed for the manufacture of vaccines, in addition to having left out other inputs to combat covid-19.

On electronic commerce, the “agreement” was basically to maintain the existing moratorium. In other words, they decided to decide later, as any agreement on tariffs on digital services promises to be an earthquake in the world economy. The agreement on food security , stipulating different rules for national regulatory stocks, also came out in a format that displeased rich and poor alike, especially India, one of the countries that best articulates its position as leader of developing countries in the WTO.

Even the agreement on fishing, the most ambitious, only the second agreement in the 27 years of existence of the organization, which permanently changes the rules of the WTO, is also criticized as unambitious, since it basically recognizes the right to exist “illegal, unreported or irregular” fishing. Just veto your subsidy. Recognizing something that is illegal is something contradictory in essence.

The crucial question is whether these agreements, fruit of a moment of pressure and not very ambitious, will at least serve as a cornerstone for deeper and more elaborate agreements in the near future. In other words, more than the subject of each agreement, their importance lies in the whole and in the task of recovering, at least part, the WTO’s credibility as a forum for topics relevant to the entire international community.

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