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Cautious optimism at high-stakes WTO meet

·4-min read

The World Trade Organization chief voiced cautious optimism Sunday as global trade ministers gathered to tackle food security threatened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, overfishing and equitable access to Covid vaccines.

Speaking ahead of the WTO's first ministerial meeting in nearly five years, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that "the road will be bumpy and rocky."

But she told journalists she was "cautiously optimistic" that the more than 100 attending ministers would manage to agree on at least one or two of a long line of pressing issues, and that would be "a success".

The WTO faces pressure to eke out long-sought trade deals on a range of issues and show unity amid the still raging pandemic and an impending global hunger crisis.

But since the global trade body only makes decisions by consensus, it can be more than tricky to reach agreements.

Top of the agenda at the four-day meeting is the toll Russia's war in Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket that feeds hundreds of millions of people, is having on food security.

- 'Do the right thing' -

The ministers are expected to agree on a joint declaration in which they "commit to take concrete steps to facilitate trade and improve the functioning and longterm resilience of global markets for food and agriculture."

According to the draft text, countries would also vow that "particular consideration will be given to the specific needs and circumstances of developing country Members, especially those of least-developed and net food-importing developing countries."

"I hope you will collectively do the right thing,” Ngozi told the delegates.

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, who has accused Russia of "using food and grain as a weapon of war," gathered ministers and representatives from 57 countries, including Kyiv's trade representative Taras Kachka, for an event right before the WTO conference kicked off, to show solidarity with Ukraine, and decry Russia's "illegal and barbaric aggression".

- Fisheries deal in sight? -

The WTO hopes to keep criticism of Russia's war in Ukraine to the numerous blistering statements issued on the first day of talks.

But there are fears it could run into the following days, when the WTO wants to focus on nailing down trade deals, after nearly a decade with no major agreements.

There is some optimism that countries could finally agree on banning subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, after more than 20 years of negotiations.

"Will our children forgive us… if we allow our oceans to be depleted?” Ngozi asked.

The WTO says talks have never been this close to the finish line, but diplomats remain cautious.

The negotiations "have made progress recently, but these remain difficult subjects," a diplomatic source in Geneva told AFP.

One of the main sticking points has been so-called special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing countries, including major fishing nation India, which can request exemptions.

- India blocking  -

The duration of exemptions remains undefined, with environmental groups warning anything beyond 10 years would be catastrophic.

India has demanded a 25-year exemption, and is so far refusing to budge.

Fishing in India is "largely sustenance fishing," used by many to survive, Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal told the conference in a video address, insisting: "their right to life and livelihood cannot be curtailed in any manner."

Angered by lacking follow-through on promises made at a WTO ministerial meeting nearly a decade ago for food policy measures, India is proving intransigent on other issues as well, jeopardising the chances of locking down deals.

"There is not a single issue that India is not blocking," a Geneva-based ambassador said, singling out WTO reform and agriculture.

- Patent waiver? -

The ministers are also set to seek a joint WTO response to the pandemic, although significant obstacles remain.

In October 2020, India and South Africa called for intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and other pandemic responses to be suspended in a bid to ensure more equitable access in poorer nations.

After multiple rounds of talks, the European Union, the United States, India and South Africa hammered out a compromise that has become the basis for a draft text sent to ministers.

The text, which would allow most developing countries, although not China, to produce Covid vaccines without authorisation from patent holders, still faces opposition from both sides.

Britain and Switzerland are reluctant to sign up, arguing along with the pharmaceutical industry that the waiver would undermine investment in innovation.

Public interest groups meanwhile say the text falls far short of what is needed by covering only vaccines and not Covid treatments and diagnostics.

"The negotiations are still aeons away from ensuring access to lifesaving Covid medical tools for everyone, everywhere," medical charity Doctors Without Borders warned.

nl-bur/vog/kjm

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