An early test for the incoming WTO Director-General — helping Members get the Fisheries Subsidies negotiations to a conclusion

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her statement to the WTO membership during the virtual Special Session of the General Council on February 15 after the Members appointed her the next Director-General made clear that an early deliverable for the WTO was completion of the Fisheries Subsidies negotiations which have been going on since the end of 2001 and were due to have been completed in 2020. See February 16, 2021, Special Session of the General Council at WTO appoints Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the seventh Director-General,

The Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, has held two sets of meetings so far in 2021, one in January and one just last week. See WTO Negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies, WTO members resume work on fisheries subsidies negotiations using latest revised text, 22 January 2021,; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Fisheries talks chair: Divides remain, but members have what they need for a deal, February 19, 2021, The press releases following the meetings indicate that there has been little movement in fact in 2021 on the host of major issues that remain for Members to resolve. A review of the second revision of the draft text that was released on December 18, 2020 and the Chair’s explanatory note that accompanied the second draft make clear that Members remain divided on a huge array of issues. See RD/TN/RL/126/Rev.2 and RD/TN/RL/126/Rev.2/Add.1.

For example, there is still no agreement on whether the scope of the agreement will cover fuel subsidies (Article 1.2).

Similarly there is not currently agreement on whether the definition of “fishing related activities” in Article 2(c) include coverage of provisions “of personnel, fuel, gear and other supplies at sea”.

Article 3 which deals with the “prohibition on subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” (IUU) consists of nine sub-articles, many of which remain bracketed whether it revolves around which entity can make a finding of IUU activity, whether leniency will be provided for non-serious violations and which violations will always be addressed, the length of sanctions, the level of transparency and obligations of Members, and whether there are exceptions (special and differential treatment (S&DT)) from the prohibitions on IUU. As is true throughout the revised draft, there are deep divides on the special and differential treatment provisions reflecting the concerns expressed by Members like the U.S. and EU on the overbreadth of Members seeking such treatment and the views of Members like India who view such S&DT as applicable to all who claim developing country status.

Article 4 addresses prohibition on subsidies concerning overfished stocks, there continues to be disagreement, inter alia, on when a fish stock is overfished (two alternatives provided) and on what S&DT will be provided.

Article 5 addresses the prohibition on subsidies concerning overcapacity and overfishing contains. Article 5 contains seven sub-articles, a number of which maintain brackets including on “non-recovery of payments under government-to-government access agreements” (Art. 5.3.2), for subsidies provided to a vessel “not flying the flag of the subsidizing member” (Art. 5.4) on whether there will be a provision for “capping” (Art. 5.5) or a “list of non-harmful subsidies” (Art. 5.6) or for S&DT language (Art. 5.7). Art. 5.3 also deals in part with subsidies for fishing or fishing activities outside of a Member’s territory, obviously a very important and contentious issue.

Article 6 dealing with “specific provisions for LDC Members” has not been discussed and remains in brackets but reflects the proposal put forward by LDC Members.

Article 7 is for technical assistance and capacity building. While bracketed, the proposal has not received significant opposition at this point and appears to be largely non-controversial.

On Articles 8-10 (notification and transparency, institutional arrangements, dispute settlement), discussions are ongoing as to what needs to be notified and ability of Members to request additional information. Articles 9 and 10 depend on whether the fisheries subsidies agreement is treated as a stand-alone Agreement or is treated as an Annex to the Subsidies and Countervailing Measures Agreement. If an Annex, dispute settlement is already provided for; if treated as a stand alone Agreement, then there will need to be an article providing for dispute settlement.

Article 11 covers final provisions and addresses issues such as whether Members will “exercise due restraint” when providing subsidies to fishing or fishing related activities for stocks where the status of the stock (overfished or not) is unknown (Art. 11.2). It also lays out possible exceptions for responding to disasters (and what limits such response shall have)(Art. 11.3) The article also makes clear that the Agreement (or Annex) is not germane to issues of “territoriality or delimitation of maritime jurisdiction” (Art. 11.4).

While the revised draft consolidated text could result in meaningful reform and limitations on harmful subsidies, much of the ongoing debate amongst Members seems to be about how to create exceptions that will permit continued subsidy practices for many Members both within territorial waters and outside of them. The perennial problem within the WTO that reform should be undertaken by others, not by me, is present in the fisheries subsidies negotiations. Can Members demonstrate the ability to come together for the common good? Hard to know as WTO Members have been negotiating for twenty years on fisheries subsidies reform. The Sustainable Development Agenda item 14.6 is designed to help save fishing for all peoples for generations to come. The WTO and the incoming Director-General have an important opportunity to show that global trade can promote sustainability. Let’s hope that a meaningful agreement is yet achievable.


While the revised draft consolidated text provided to Members on December 18, 2020 is clearly a Chairman’s draft, like many drafts in other areas that have routinely be released publicly, the WTO has been slipping into an increased pretense that such texts are “unofficial room documents” and hence not released publicly. While both documents (RD/TN/RL/126/Rev.2 and RD/TN/RL/126/Rev.2/Add. 1) can be found on the internet for those trying to understand the ongoing negotiations, the WTO does not promote transparency and public understanding by pretending that core negotiating documents or draft texts are “unofficial room documents”. Hopefully, the chairs of Committees and leadership within the WTO will correct course and improve transparency in fact and end the misuse of room documents, job documents and other “unofficial” documents which often are the core documents in a negotiation or Committee work.

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