The WTO started negotiations on fisheries subsidies as part of the Doha Development Agenda at the end of 2001.
At the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina in December 2017, WTO members adopted a decision to complete fisheries subsidies negotiations by the next Ministerial Conference. See WT/MIN(17)/64; WT/L/1031:
“MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 13 DECEMBER 2017
“The Ministerial Conference
“Decides as follows:
“1. Building on the progress made since the 10th Ministerial Conference as reflected in documents TN/RL/W/274/Rev.2, RD/TN/RL/29/Rev.3, Members agree to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations, with a view to adopting, by the Ministerial Conference in 2019, an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU-fishing recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country Members and least developed country Members should be an integral part of these negotiations.
“2. Members re-commit to implementation of existing notification obligations under Article 25.3 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures thus strengthening transparency with respect to fisheries subsidies.”
In mid-January of this year, I posted a piece that looked at Fisheries Subsidies – Will the WTO Members Reach Agreement Before June 2020?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/01/13/fisheries-subsidies-will-the-wto-members-reach-agreement-before-june-2020/. The post included the text of the 11th Ministerial decision on fisheries subsidies and a review of the challenges facing the world from overfishing. WTO Members had been aiming to have a completed agreement by the time of the 12th Ministerial which was scheduled to be held in Kazakhstan in early June of this year.
However, with the restrictions on travel in many parts of the world and with restrictions on in-person meetings at the WTO beginning in March of this year because of the efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, there has been a lack of forward movement on the fisheries subsidies negotiations. Specifically, the 12th WTO Ministerial was postponed from June 2020 to an unspecified time in 2021, and WTO Members could not agree to conduct negotiations without face-to-face meetings. While this inability to negotiate affected all areas of WTO work and negotiations, it called into question whether the WTO Members would be able to deliver the one aspect of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that was in the WTO’s area of competence and expertise.
Now that face-to-face meetings can occur at the WTO and as Members are gaining experience with virtual meetings, the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules (fisheries subsidies), Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, held an informal meeting of the heads of delegations and presented both a draft consolidated text and provided extensive introductory remarks. While there is a short press release from the WTO on the meeting, the two documents shared with Members are not publicly available as they were labeled as room documents, despite similar statements and draft text having routinely been released publicly both in the fisheries subsidies negotiations previously but also generally in all multilateral negotiations at the WTO over the last 25 years The press release is titled “Fisheries subsidies negotiations chair introduces draft consolidated text to WTO members,” is dated June 25 (date of the meeting) and can be found here, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/fish_25jun20_e.htm. The draft consolidated text is apparently six pages in length and is in a document coded RD/TN/RL126. The lengthy introductory remarks by the Chair are supposedly twelve pages in length and are in a document coded RD/TN/RL/126/Add.1 (Chair’s Introductory Remarks at HoD Meeting on June 25, 2020). The listing of some of the room documents in the Rules negotiating area that include the two documents from June 25, 2020 is embedded below.RD-TN-RL-docs-part-1
It is obviously excellent news that a new draft consolidated text has been finally circulated to Members and that the Chair is attempting to see if Members can fulfill the objective of reaching a meaningful agreement on fisheries subsidies by the end of 2020. One meeting is scheduled for July 21 (10 a.m., open-ended Negotiating Group on Rules (Fisheries Subsidies). Presumably other meetings will be scheduled for the remainder of the year. While the WTO is typically in recess during August, Members may decide to have some meetings at least on the topic of selecting a new Director-General and arguably could decide to pursue fisheries subsidies as well in August. If not, I would expect a fairly aggressive program of meetings on fisheries subsidies in the fall and into December to achieve an agreement if possible.
The lack of public access to the draft text and the introductory remarks obviously limits the ability of many stakeholders to understand the level of ambition and the areas of concern that remain in the text. To show the departure from what I would describe as normal WTO procedures, I embed below three documents. The first two are parts of TN/RL/W/232 (the cover letter entitled “Working Document from the Chairman”) and Annex C dealing with Fisheries Subsidies (the Chair’s draft text, along with comments from Members). The third is JOB/RL/6 from 1 December 2016 (WTO document is dated 6 December) and is entitled “CHAIR’S REPORT TO THE INFORMAL MEETING OF HEADS OF DELEGATIONS ON THE RULES NEGOTIATIONS”. Obviously, the draft consolidated text in RD/TN/RL/126 is not substantively different in type of document than the chair’s draft text in TN/RL/W/232 (Annex C). Similarly, the introductory remarks to the HoD meeting on June 25 contained in RD/TN/RL/126/Add.1 would appear to be the same type of information as was contained in JOB/RL/6. The retreat from transparency is worrisome to members of the public and should be to WTO Members.TNRLW232-00
WTO Members have been pursuing agreement on fisheries subsidies for nearly nineteen years. During that time, the problems of overfishing and the challenges to the world’s supply of wild caught fish have gotten much worse. With the added incentive of being able to address one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, WTO Members have been attempting to reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies this year. The chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules (fisheries subsidies), working with facilitators, has pulled together a consolidated draft text which has now been given to Members with a renewed work program ahead for negotiators. Whether the new text will actually achieve the sustainable development objective or the literal terms of the 11th Ministerial decision won’t be known til an agreement is reached.
While the development of a draft text is obviously very desirable, the inexplicable move away from transparency to the public by the act of calling the text and introductory comments “room documents” and thus not releasing them is not only unfortunate but will do nothing to help obtain greater public support for the WTO. Hopefully, the coding of the documents as “room documents” will be corrected (or additional copies with different codes created) and the two documents will be released publicly immediately. Time will tell if this lack of transparency is yet another part of the building existential crisis for the organization.