12th Ministerial Conference

G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Statement of October 12 and Amb. Tai’s comments on the WTO from October 14 — the ongoing divide among major Members makes a meaningful WTO MC12 less likely

In prior posts, I have reviewed the challenges facing the WTO as it approaches the 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva at the end of November, beginning of December. See, e.g., October 8, 2021: The gap between WTO activity and the needs of businesses and workers for the international trading system, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/10/08/the-gap-between-wto-activity-and-the-needs-of-businesses-and-workers-for-the-international-trading-system/; September 18, 2021: The WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Late November – early December 2021 — the struggle for relevance, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/09/18/the-wtos-12th-ministerial-conference-in-late-november-early-december-2021-the-struggle-for-relevance/; May 10, 2021:  World Trade Organization — possible deliverables for the 12th Ministerial Conference to be held in Geneva November 30-December 3, 2021, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/05/10/world-trade-organization-possible-deliverables-for-the-12th-ministerial-conference-to-be-held-in-geneva-november-30-december-3-2021/.

The G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Statement of October 12, 2021

WTO Reform

While the vast majority of WTO Members profess an interest in a successful MC12 beginning in late November, the reality is that success means very different things to different Members. The G20 countries have repeatedly called for a successful MC12, but this week’s meeting in Sorento Italy and resulting Ministerial statement on trade and investment shows limited actual convergence on what should be achieved at the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference. See G20 TRADE AND INVESTMENT MINISTERIAL MEETING – OCTOBER 12, 2021, G20 MINISTERIAL STATEMENT ON TRADE AND INVESTMENT, https://www.g20.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/G20-TIMM-statement-PDF.pdf.

Paragraph 6 of the G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial statement reiterates support for a successful MC12.

“We commit to a successful and productive WTO 12th Ministerial Conference as an important opportunity to advance WTO reform to revitalise the organisation. We commit to active engagement in this work to provide the political momentum necessary for progress.”

Yet the statement is short on specific areas of reform other than improving rule making and dispute settlement — areas where there has been no meaningful forward movement ahead of MC 12 and where there are major divisions among G20 countries.

Trade and Health

On the topic of “trade and health” there is support among G20 countries for equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and personal protective equipment, and G20 countries are making belated contributions to increased supplies to the most vulnerable. However, with the exception of export restraints where there is language recognizing the right of countries to take actions in limited circumstances, the divisions amongst the G20 make specifics on WTO issues merely aspirational.

“10. We will work actively and constructively with all WTO members in the lead up to the 12th Ministerial Conference and beyond to enhance the capacity of the multilateral trading system to increase our pandemic and disaster preparedness and resilience by adopting a multifaceted response. Trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, contributions to international efforts to expand production and delivery of vaccines, therapeutics and essential medical goods, diversifying manufacturing
locations and fostering equitable distribution, trade facilitation measures, export restrictions, encouraging regulatory compatibility, are among the areas where our constructive engagement in the WTO, notably in the TRIPS Council, the Council for
Trade in Goods, the Council for Trade in Services, and other relevant bodies and processes, can enhance global public health efforts.”

While there may be language in an MC12 declaration and a work program for the future, there will not likely be any meaningful results announced at MC12.

Services and Investments


Embarrassingly for the WTO, Members, efforts to develop multilateral rules for digital trade and e-commerce continue to be far from concluded. This has led to the Joint Statement Initiative (“JSI”) on E-Commerce and other JSIs being launched at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in 2017 amongst a subset of WTO Members but open to all. Two of the other JSIs are Investment Facilitation for Development and Services Domestic Regulation. The JSI on Services Domestic Regulation has reportedly reached an agreement that will be presented at MC12. However, within the G20, there are some countries who oppose bringing JSIs into the WTO — most notably, India and South Africa. See WTO News, Participants in domestic regulation talks conclude text negotiations, on track for MC12 deal, 27 September 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/serv_27sep21_e.htm; THE LEGAL STATUS OF ‘JOINT STATEMENT INITIATIVES’ AND THEIR NEGOTIATED OUTCOMES, submission from India, Namibia and South Africa, 30 April 2021, WT/GC/W/819/Rev.1. This difference of views is reflected in the G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Statement.

“14. G20 participants in the Joint Statement Initiatives on E-Commerce, Investment Facilitation for Development and Services Domestic Regulation encourage and support the active participation of all WTO members in the initiatives and look
forward to meaningful progress in the lead up to the 12th WTO Ministerial conference. Concerns have been expressed on rule-making by some G20 members that are not part of the JSIs.”

Government Support and Level Playing Field

The section of the Ministerial Statement looking at government support and level playing field issues recognizes that there are “structural problems in some sectors, such as excess capacities” which cause problems and note that “Many G20 members affirm the need to strengthen international rules on industrial subsidies and welcome ongoing international efforts to improve trade rules affecting agriculture.” As is clear “many of us” means a number of G20 countries don’t agree. Industrial subsidy rule improvement is intended to address the distortions caused by China’s programs (and of others). Agriculture market access and agricultural subsidies and transparency are also issues where there is a significant division among G20 countries.

Trade and Environmental Sustainability

The challenges to the world from a warming climate are existential. The Ministerial Statement contains useful language of a general nature in terms of the importance of addressing environmental issues and that “trade and environmental policies should be mutually supportive”. The G20 support reaching a conclusion to the fisheries subsidies negotiations even though there have been recent actions by some G20 countries — again, India and South Africa — to weaken disciplines on “developing” countries which threaten the achievement of a meaningful agreement 20 years after negotiations commenced.

MSMEs

Micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises are a critical part of most countries economies and make up a larger share of business in lower income countries. While the Ministerial Statement addresses MSMEs importance and need for additional assistance, there is no mention of the Joint Statement Initiative on MSMEs among some WTO Members and the fact that an agreement is ready for presentation at MC12 with the agreement being open to all. See WTO News, Working group on small business finalises MC12 draft declaration, 27 September 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/msmes_28sep21_e.htm. India and South Africa and others have raised the same objection to the MSME JSI as they have to the others.

Conclusion on G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Statement

The deep divisions within the WTO membership are reflected as well among the G20 countries with China, India, South Africa and others having much different priorities that the historic leadership of the GATT/WTO including the U.S., EU, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and others. It is the lack of a common purpose and agreement on basic principles that has largely paralyzed the negotiating function at the WTO. The disappointing G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Statement reflects that same lack of common purpose and agreement on basic principles.

USTR Katherine Tai’s October 14, 2021 Prepared Remarks on the WTO

The U.S. Trade Representative traveled to Geneva after the G20 Trade and Investment Ministers meeting in Italy and spoke on the WTO at an event hosted by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies’ Geneva Trade Platform on October 14. Ambassador Tai’s prepared statement is available on the USTR webpage and is reproduced below. See USTR,Ambassador Katherine Tai’s Remarks As Prepared for Delivery on the World Trade Organization, October 14, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/speeches-and-remarks/2021/october/ambassador-katherine-tais-remarks-prepared-delivery-world-trade-organization.

” Good afternoon.  Thank you to Dmitry and Richard, the Geneva Trade Platform, and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies for hosting me today and putting together this event.

“It is a pleasure to be back in Geneva.  I have looked forward to making this trip since becoming the United States Trade Representative in March, and I am grateful to be here with all of you today.  

“I spent a lot of time in this city earlier in my career representing the United States Government with pride before the World Trade Organization.  

“I appreciate the importance of the institution.  And I respect the dedicated professionals representing the 164 members, as well as the WTO’s institutional staff working on behalf of the membership.  I also want to thank Director-General Dr. Ngozi for leading this organization through a difficult and challenging year. 

“Let me begin by affirming the United States’ continued commitment to the WTO.  

“The Biden-Harris Administration believes that trade – and the WTO – can be a force for good that encourages a race to the top and addresses global challenges as they arise.  

“The Marrakesh Declaration and Agreement, on which the WTO is founded, begins with the recognition that trade should raise living standards, ensure full employment, pursue sustainable development, and protect and preserve the environment. 

“We believe that refocusing on these goals can help bring shared prosperity to all.

“For some time, there has been a growing sense that the conversations in places like Geneva are not grounded in the lived experiences of working people.  For years, we have seen protests outside WTO ministerial conferences about issues like workers’ rights, job loss, environmental degradation, and climate change as tensions around globalization have increased. 

“We all know that trade is essential to a functioning global economy.  But we must ask ourselves: how do we improve trade rules to protect our planet and address widening inequality and increasing economic insecurity?

“Today, I want to discuss the United States’ vision for how we can work together to make the WTO relevant to the needs of regular people.

“We have an opportunity at the upcoming 12th ministerial conference – or MC12 – to demonstrate exactly that.

“Throughout the pandemic, the WTO rules have kept global trade flowing and fostered transparency on measures taken by countries to respond to the crisis.  But many time-sensitive issues still require our attention.  We can use the upcoming ministerial to deliver results on achievable outcomes.

“The pandemic has placed tremendous strain on peoples’ health and livelihoods around the world.  The WTO can show that it is capable of effectively addressing a global challenge like COVID-19, and helping the world build back better. 
  
“There are several trade and health proposals that should be able to achieve consensus in the next month and a half.  

“I announced in May that the United States supports text-based discussions on a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.  The TRIPS Council discussions have not been easy, and Members are still divided on this issue.  The discussions make certain governments and stakeholders uncomfortable.  But we must confront our discomfort if we are going to prove that, during a pandemic, it is not business as usual in Geneva.  

“The United States is also working on a draft ministerial decision aimed at strengthening resiliency and preparedness through trade facilitation.  Our proposal would improve the sharing of information, experiences, and lessons learned from COVID-19 responses to help border agencies respond in future crises.  

“It is important that our work on trade and health does not end at MC12.  This pandemic will not be over in December, and it will not be the last public health crisis we encounter.  In the next six weeks, we also have an opportunity to conclude the two-decades-long fisheries subsidies negotiations and show that the WTO can promote sustainable development.  

“We want to continue working with Members to bridge existing gaps in the negotiations.  

“To this end, the United States is sharing options to respond to developing countries’ request for flexibilities.  We believe that any agreement must establish effective disciplines that promote sustainability.  

“It must also address the prevalence of forced labor on fishing vessels.  We call on all Members to support these goals.

“I recognize that discussing these complex issues during a pandemic is hard.  Despite this challenge, we can reach meaningful outcomes and set ourselves up for candid and productive long-term conversations on reforming the WTO.

“As I mentioned earlier, the reality of the institution today does not match the ambition of its goals.  Every trade minister I’ve heard from has expressed the view that the WTO needs reform.  

“The Organization has rightfully been accused of existing in a ‘bubble,’ insulated from reality and slow to recognize global developments.  That must change.

“We are used to talking to each other, a lot.  We need to start actually listening to each other.

“We also must include new voices, find new approaches to problems, and move past the old paradigms we have been using for the last 25 years.  

“We need to look beyond simple dichotomies like liberalization vs. protectionism or developed vs. developing.  Let’s create shared solutions that increase economic security.

“By working together and engaging differently, the WTO can be an organization that empowers workers, protects the environment, and promotes equitable development. 

“Our reform efforts can start with the monitoring function.  In committees, Members deliberate issues and monitor compliance with the agreements.  This important work is a unique and underappreciated asset of the WTO. 

“Increasingly, however, Members are not responding meaningfully to concerns with their trade measures.  The root of this problem is a lack of political will.  But committee procedures can be updated to improve monitoring work.  

“At MC12, Ministers can direct each committee to review and improve its rules. 

“It is also essential to bring vitality back to the WTO’s negotiating function.  We have not concluded a fully multilateral trade agreement since 2013.

“A key stumbling block is doubt that negotiations lead to rules that benefit or apply to everyone. But we know that negotiations only succeed when there is real give and take.

“We can successfully reform the negotiating pillar if we create a more flexible WTO, change the way we approach problems collectively, improve transparency and inclusiveness, and restore the deliberative function of the organization.

“Over the past quarter century, WTO members have discovered that they can get around the hard part of diplomacy and negotiation by securing new rules through litigation.    

“Dispute settlement was never intended to supplant negotiations.  The reform of these two core WTO functions is intimately linked.  

“The objective of the dispute settlement system is to facilitate mutually agreed solutions between Members.  Over time, ‘dispute settlement’ has become synonymous with litigation – litigation that is prolonged, expensive, and contentious.  

“Consider the history of this system.  

“It started as a quasi-diplomatic, quasi-legal proceeding for presenting arguments over differing interpretations of WTO rules.  A typical panel or Appellate Body report in the early days was 20 or 30 pages.  Twenty years later, reports for some of the largest cases have exceeded 1,000 pages.  They symbolize what the system has become: unwieldy and bureaucratic. 

“The United States is familiar with large and bitterly fought WTO cases.  Earlier this year, we negotiated frameworks with the European Union and the United Kingdom to settle the Large Civil Aircraft cases that started in 2004.  

“We invoked and exhausted every procedure available.  And along the way, we created strains and pressures that distorted the development of the dispute settlement system.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we can now ask: is a system that requires 16 years to find a solution ‘fully functioning?’

“This process is so complicated and expensive that it is out of reach for many – perhaps the majority – of Members. 

“Reforming dispute settlement is not about restoring the Appellate Body for its own sake, or going back to the way it used to be.  

“It is about revitalizing the agency of Members to secure acceptable resolutions.

“A functioning dispute settlement system, however structured, would provide confidence that the system is fair.  Members would be more motivated to negotiate new rules.

“Let’s not prejudge what a reformed system would look like. While we have already started working with some members, I want to hear from others about how we can move forward.

“Reforming the three pillars of the WTO requires a commitment to transparency.  Strengthening transparency will improve our ability to monitor compliance, to negotiate rules, and to resolve our disputes. 

“I began these remarks with an affirmation of commitment.  I’d like to conclude with an affirmation of optimism.

“I am optimistic that we can and will take advantage of this moment of reflection.

“In reading over the Marrakesh Agreement’s opening lines, I was struck by the founding Members’ resolve to develop ‘a more viable and durable multilateral trading system.’  

“These words are just as relevant today as they were then. We still need to work together to achieve a more viable and durable multilateral trading system.

“It is easy to get distracted by the areas where we may not see eye to eye.  But in conversations with my counterparts, I hear many more areas of agreement than disagreement.  

“We all recognize the importance of the WTO, and we all want it to succeed. 

“We understand the value of a forum where we can propose ideas to improve multilateral trade rules.  We should harness these efforts to promote a fairer, more inclusive global economy.  

“WTO Members are capable of forging consensus on difficult, complicated issues. It’s never been easy, but we’ve done it before.  And we can do it again.  

“Thank you.”

Comments on USTR Tai’s statement on the WTO

The Biden Administration has been supportive of multilateral institutions, and that support is relfected in Amb. Tai’s comments. At the same time, the U.S. has believed that a small package of deliverables is achievable for MC12 with hopefully a work program for the serious reform that is needed also being agreed to at MC12. Amb. Tai’s comments reflect both optimism and a limited set of deliverables being sought.

The Fisheries Subsidies negotiations has made limited progress on a range of important issues. The U.S. is attempting to find answers to problems raised by others while still achieving a meaningful outcome. With the limited time remaining, this suggests either a less robust agreement or movement by others to a higher level of ambition or to no agreement being finalized. Addressing forced labor in fishing and more broadly should be important to all WTO Members, was raised by the U.S. (and is important to Democratic leadership in the Congress) but is opposed by some, including China. If the U.S. continues to pursue the addition of this issue to the fisheries subsidies text,

On greater transparency, Members agreeing to have Committees review their procedures to improve the monitoring function are important steps that could be taken to improve Member confidence in actions of trading partners and affect negotiations and dispute settlement as well. Even such seemingly simple steps, however, may not move forward as at least one major country — China — has as one of its negotiating priorities not changing transparency obligations.

Revitalizing the negotiating function and restoring a dispute settlement system are longer term efforts, with the U.S. vision on dispute settlement (focus on what dispute settlement is doing vs. ensuring a two stage process) far apart from that of the EU and many other Members.

And, of course, the U.S. is supportive of some form of outcome on addressing the pandemic and trade and health moving forward. Whether there will be outcomes in this area are dependent more on flexibility by others as the U.S. has been looking for solutions that will meet the pandemic needs and prepare for the future.

Conclusion

With very limited time until the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference begins at the end of November, it is hard to see an ambitious outcome emerging from the efforts of WTO Members. The G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Statement from October 12 reflects the divisions amongst the major WTO Members. Amb. Tai’s statement yesterday in Geneva while positive on the WTO and its important role tees up a relatively limited outcome as likely for MC 12. Even Amb. Tai’s more realistic set of expectations are likely to be challenging to achieve.

The WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Late November – early December 2021 — the struggle for relevance

As the end of year 27 approaches since the WTO commenced operation, the struggle for relevance in a significantly changed world continues for the organization that is supposed to be the negotiating forum for international trade rules and for ensuring compliance with such rules. The current Director-General of the WTO has been working with Members to try to achieve positive results by the 12th Ministerial Conference scheduled to commence on November 29. The jury is out on whether WTO Members will be able to find sufficient common ground to permit a successful Ministerial.

While there has been broad agreement by WTO Members that reform is needed, there is no agreement as to what reform is needed as the 164 WTO Members have long since lost a common vision of the mission of the WTO. The lack of a common vision has been complicated by the rise of nonmarket economies like China and the abandonment of market principles by many either in sectors or more broadly.

A consensus system for decision making stifles rapid movement in addressing new challenges/opportunities and has permitted delay to characterize all aspects of the business undertaken at the WTO. For businesses, the WTO is not where pressing new issues get resolved or even addressed as a general matter.

Rules on electronic commerce are being pursued by a group of willing Members with questions and challenges presented by those not wishing strong rules to be pursued on a plurilateral basis. The same is true for other plurilateral initiatives of potential importance to updating the rule book.

The only multilateral negotiation ongoing, on fisheries subsidies, has dragged on for 20 years and remains mired in an effort by many to escape the disciplines being proposed to save marine life in the oceans.

Efforts from the Doha Development Agenda to continue reform and liberalization in agriculture have had some successes in terms of curbing export subsidies but has not been able to deliver significant liberalization through tariff reductions and have faced pressure from India and others to roll back the liberalization agreed to in the Uruguay Round through special rules on some topics. It is unclear that Members will actually find the desire to move agriculture forward by the 12th Ministerial.

The many trade challenges flowing from climate change are not yet central to the efforts of the organization but will increasingly occupy governments and companies and will complicate ensuring the relevance of the WTO moving forward.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to the operation of the WTO in terms of in person meetings and presented challenges and opportunities to have trade rules facilitate movement of medical goods versus compound trade problems flowing from efforts to control the pandemic, the effort by India, South Africa and others to get a broad based waiver to TRIPS obligations during the pandemic has generated little forward movement in terms of getting more vaccines to low- and middle-income countries while occupying a lot of band width in terms of Member energies at the WTO.

As is increasingly clear, while there have been production issues for some companies and while India’s need for vaccines in country led to its cutting off exports to COVAX and many countries, vaccine production in 2021 will exceed 10 billion doses (UNICEF’s COVID-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard visited on September 15, 2021 showed 6.077 billion doses as having been distributed by that point with capacity to produce vaccines at 4.5 billion in the first half of 2021 and 8.6 billion in the second half of 2021). In late June 2021, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations presented information at a WTO event that COVID-19 vaccine production in 2021 would likely be 10-12 billion doses. Similarly, the CEO and Founder of Airfinity prepared estimates for the WTO which showed global production could reach 11.856 billion by the end of the year. See WTO News, COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chain and Regulatory Transparency Technical Symposium, June 29, 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/trips_e/technical_symposium_2906_e.htm (talking points of Ms Laetitia Bigger, Vaccines Policy Director, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations and presentation of Mr Rasmus Bach Hansen, CEO and Founder, Airfinity.

Thus, the pressing issue for getting the world vaccinated is getting vaccine doses produced distributed to markets in need. That need has not and is not likely to be met through efforts at large scale waivers from TRIPS obligations which will not change the reality on the ground in 2021-2022.

The WTO along with the WHO, IMF and World Bank have held various events and issued joint statements seeking greater production, addressing production bottlenecks and getting expanded investments in areas of the world with limited supplies. Many governments and many manufacturers have provided some level of cooperation in expanding production and shipments to low- and middle-income countries. See, e,g,, International organizations, vaccine manufacturers agree to intensify cooperation to deliver COVID-19 vaccines, 16 September 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/covid_16sep21_e.htm.

On dispute settlement, the two tier system embodied in the Dispute Settlement Understanding has unravelled as a range of important concerns raised by the United States over the last two decades have not been addressed meaningfully by WTO Members, leading to U.S. blockage of replacing Appellate Body members over recent years and the inability of the Appellate Body to consider appeals once the number of members declined below 3. While many WTO Members continue to seek a restart of the Appellate Body, it is clear that there will be no restart without serious reform. Such reform is unlikely to be achieved in the short term. The European Union which has been one of the challenges in terms of meaningful DSU reform has been making statements that they are now ready for fundamental reform. See, e.g., Financial Tribune, EU Calls for Urgent WTO Reforms, September 18, 2021 (“Dombrovskis said he was ready to consider a major shake-up of the WTO’s dispute settlement system, news outlets said.”), https://financialtribune.com/articles/international/110329/eu-calls-for-urgent-wto-reforms. So while the EU’s apparent changing view will be helpful, it is not clear if it will be sufficient to change the dynamics in Geneva.

Conclusion

There is a lot of work going on in Geneva with efforts to conclude the fisheries subsidies negotiations and achieve some resolution on the TRIPS waiver issue by the Ministerial in late November. There has also been progress made in various plurilaterals but questions have been raised as to whether plurilaterals can occur within the WTO if there is not consensus to include. The reform proposals on issues like industrial and agricultural subsidies, state owned enterprises, eligiblity for special and differential treatment and many others will not be resolved by the Ministerial and will not likely be part of an agreed agenda going forward. Agriculture and dispute settlement will be unlikely to see significant (agriculture) or any (dispute settlement) movement by the Ministerial.

Thus, while the jury is out on whether the WTO will remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, the challenges the WTO faces are daunting and the odds don’t favor success in today’s environment. Being an optimist, I am hopeful that the above analysis will prove wrong and the 12th Ministerial will start the process of a more relevant WTO. Here’s hoping.

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This is my first post since May 17. I have been taking care of personal business the last four months and had included a note in the “About” page indicating my next post would be in September.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s first week on the job starts with a two day General Council meeting

While the WTO’s General Council, in special session, appointed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next Director-General on February 15, 2021, her term starts on Monday, March 1. The challenges facing the WTO membership and the incoming Director-General are many and complex. At the same time, there is a lot of useful work that is done within the WTO including efforts of non-members to join the WTO (accessions).

In speaking to an informal Trade Negotiations Committee and Heads of Delegation meeting on February 25, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff spoke in part on “The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Era”. See WTO, DDG Wolff calls on members to work with new Director-General to reform WTO, 25 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_25feb21_e.htm. Part of the section of his statement on the new DG’s era is copied below.

“The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Era

“The landmark event of the last six months was the appointment of the new Director-General ten days ago after what turned out to be a lengthy process.  91 member delegations spoke last week to congratulate the new Director-General. The DDGs and the Secretariat join you in welcoming Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment with great enthusiasm.

“Of course, member enthusiasm, optimism and hope need to be translated into concrete action.  

“There is much that needs to be done at this critical juncture for the WTO. World trade must contribute to a more effective pandemic response as well as a strong and sustainable economic recovery. Climate issues are demanding more urgent attention. WTO reform is overdue, having been called for repeatedly by you, by your ministers and by many heads of government. 

“The challenges are many but so are the opportunities. Dr Ngozi’s remarks at the Special General Council meeting last Monday, subsequently circulated to delegations in document JOB/GC/250, presented a worthy and ambitious agenda for the members of this organization.

“What did she say?

“To act with a sense of urgency to assist in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic through the nexus of trade and public health:

“First, by playing a more forceful role in exercising the WTO’s monitoring function. Part of this would involve encouraging members to minimise or remove export restrictions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment. WTO monitoring suggests that as of yesterday, 59 members and 7 observers still had pandemic-related export restrictions or licensing requirements in place, mostly for personal protective equipment, disinfectants and to a lesser extent, for medicines and food. This represents a significant level of rollback compared to the 81 members and 10 observers that had implemented such measures over the past year. A welcome development — but there is much room to improve this record.  

“And second, by broadening access to new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics by facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules.

“Beyond these immediate responses to the pandemic, Dr Ngozi set out a number of other, also vitally important, challenges:

“To swiftly conclude the fisheries subsidies negotiations, and thus pass a key test of the WTO’s multilateral credibility while contributing to the sustainability of the world’s oceans.

“To build on the new energy in the multilateral trading system from the joint statement initiatives attracting greater support and interest, including from developing countries.

“To address more broadly the nexus between trade and climate change, using trade to create a green and circular economy, to reactivate and broaden negotiations on environmental goods and services, to take the initiative to address the issue of carbon border adjustments as they may affect trade.

“To level the playing field in agricultural trade though improving market access and dealing with trade distorting domestic support, exempting from export restrictions World Food Programme humanitarian purchases.

“To strengthen disciplines on industrial subsidies, including support for state-owned enterprises. 

“To defuse the divisions over Special and Differential Treatment (SDT).

“And to develop a work programme for restoring two-tier dispute resolution, to be agreed no later than MC12.

“I sense from my discussions with members that you chose this leader, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, because she has shown herself during her career to be fearless in the face of daunting challenges — and is experienced in knowing how to work with others to make progress toward solutions. 

“Each of the challenges the WTO faces, I am sure, can be met and overcome.  Echoing Dr Ngozi’s words, the trading system that we inherited, now only three-quarters of a century old, is about people.  This is inscribed in the opening section of the Marrakech agreement: ‘to raise living standards, ensure full employment, increase incomes, expand the production of and trade in goods and services, and seek the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development.”’

DDG Wolff’s summation correctly lays out many of the issues needing to be addressed by the WTO membership. The vast majority of the issues are highly controversial among at least some Members.

The first major order of business is a two day General Council meeting on March 1-2 which has several agenda items that lay out controversies on important potential deliverables by the WTO in 2021. The agenda for the two day meeting contains sixteen items. See WT/GC/W/820 (26 February 2021) embedded below.

W820

General Council meetings deal with updates on ongoing work at the WTO and address issues teed up by particular Members for consideration at the meeting. This post does not take up all agenda items but highlights a few of possible interest. Because DDG Wolff’s statement on February 25 reviews many of the activities of the WTO in the last six months which shows some of the positive developments, the full statement is embedded below.

WTO-_-2021-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-calls-on-members-to-work-with-new-Director-General-to-reform-WTO

The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference

Agenda item 4 deals with the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference. It is expected that there will be a decision on the timing and location of the twelfth Ministerial Conference at the General Council session on Monday-Tuesday. The 12th MC was postponed from June 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the continued challenges from the pandemic the likely date will be the end of 2021. Kazakhstan which had offered to host the conference in 2020 and again in the summer of 2021 has recently indicated a willingness to host in December of this year as well. The ministerial had originally been scheduled for June because of challenging weather conditions in Kazakhstan in December. See TWELFTH SESSION OF THE MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE, COMMUNICATION FROM KAZAKHSTAN, 8 February 2021, WT/GC/229 (24 February 2021)(embedded below).

229

Report on WTO Accessions

Deputy Director-General Wolff will provide a statement on the annual report on WTO accessions. The report is WTO ACCESSIONS, 2020 ANNUAL REPORT BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL, WT/ACC/38, WT/GC/228 (18 February 2021). Activity on accessions was challenged by the pandemic and inability to travel/hold in person meetings. More technical assistance and virtual meetings were held. Accessions are important for acceding governments in terms of promoting reforms at home and obtaining increased certainty in their international trade relations. Accessions are also an important benefit of membership for existing Members as acceding Members reduce tariffs and various non-tariff barriers to gain accession. The first eight paragraphs of the report provide an overview of activities in 2020 and are copied below.

Overview of activities in 2020

“1. 2020 was an unprecedented year in recent history due the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and its consequences which have touched upon every single aspect of our lives in every corner of the world. It was a challenging year for the WTO, not least because the pandemic disrupted its core activities, especially during the first half of the year, and it also disrupted the international trade of Members, except for supplies of essential goods critical to combatting the health crisis as trade in these goods expanded dramatically. The difficulties and challenges arising from the pandemic were particularly pronounced in acceding governments due to the uncertainties of being outside of the multilateral trading system. In fact, the desire and urgency to be part of the WTO was never felt stronger than in the pandemic year. This was reflected in the level of accession activities in 2020, which was sustained vis-à-vis previous years, with a significant increase in technical assistance and outreach activities.

“2. The year for accessions started with the establishment of a new Working Party for the accession of Curaçao, a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (WTO Member), following its application for an independent membership as a separate customs territory pursuant to Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement. This constituted the 59th request by a state or separate customs territory for membership since the establishment of the Organization in 1995. In July, Turkmenistan was granted observer status in the WTO, with the understanding that it would apply for accession no later than in five years. This brought the total number of observer governments with the intention to accede to the WTO to 24, an increase by five since 2016 when Afghanistan and Liberia became the Organization’s most recent Members. The continuing interest to become part of the multilateral trading system is a testament to the attraction and relevance of its values and principles for all economies, regardless of their size or level of development.

“3. The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly hampered or delayed the technical work by acceding governments, Members and the Secretariat to prepare for, engage in and follow up on Working Party meetings. However, thanks to the firm commitment of the acceding governments to advance their work, four Working Parties met, including through the use of virtual platforms that connected the acceding governments which were unable to travel to Geneva. One acceding government had to cancel its already scheduled meeting due to the suspension of all WTO meetings in March. Out of the four accession Working Party meetings held in 2020, three were on LDC accessions (Ethiopia, Comoros and Timor-Leste). In two cases – the Working Parties of Ethiopia and Uzbekistan – this also represented the formal resumption of accession processes after several years of inactivity (8 and 15 years, respectively), signalling their desire to use WTO membership negotiations to drive domestic economic reforms, which have broader implications in the regions where they are located.

“4. When the pandemic halted planned missions, technical assistance, and outreach activities which required air travel, the Secretariat rapidly shifted the mode of operation to virtual format and took advantage of the opportunities provided thereby. In addition to the formal accession Working Party meetings which took place via Interprefy, the Accessions Division organised virtual technical meetings and briefing sessions with acceding governments, Working Party Chairpersons and partners in support of accessions. Moreover, the Division delivered a number of technical assistance, training and outreach activities in response to articulated needs of acceding governments, using various virtual platforms, such as MS Teams, Zoom and WebEx. In fact, the number of activities delivered by the Division and of participants who attended or were trained in 2020 exceeded considerably the numbers in previous years.

“5. One of the novel outreach programs developed in 2020 was two week-long activities which consisted of a series of webinars combining lectures, training and panel discussions. The first Accessions Week was organised from 29 June to 3 July, and the first edition of the Trade for Peace Week took place from 30 November to 4 December. These virtual events brought together a large number of resource persons and panellists from around the world and reached out to a larger number of participants, in a highly cost-effective manner, in comparison with traditional in-person activities. While the full values and benefits of in-person interaction cannot be replaced or replicated, the Accessions Week enabled the Secretariat to remain engaged with acceding governments and Members, experts and partners, beyond Geneva and around the world. The Trade for Peace Week provided an effective networking platform to expand the WTO’s partnership with the peace and humanitarian communities in support of fragile and conflict affected (FCA) countries in accession.

“6. The importance of collaboration and cooperation with partners was never felt more strongly than in 2020. The Secretariat made concerted efforts to enhance and expand the “Trade for Peace through WTO Accession” Initiative to support FCA countries in accession and those recently acceded to the WTO. In 2020, nine acceding governments were identified as being in a FCA situation according to the World Bank’s classification1, while conflicts emerged or resurged in some others. The pandemic hit hardest countries which had already been suffering from years of conflict, political crises, drought and other natural disasters, compounded by declines of the price of oil and other commodities. Nonetheless, some FCA acceding LDCs showed remarkable resilience in sustaining their engagement in accession. The Working Party on the Accession of the Union of Comoros resumed its work with determination to finalise the process as soon as possible. The Working Party on the Accession of Timor-Leste activated the Working Party by holding its first meeting nearly four years after its establishment, despite various challenges faced on the domestic front. Moreover, Somalia submitted its Memorandum on the Foreign Trade Regime, the base document to start its accession engagement with Members. Furthermore, the Secretariat continued to provide support to the g7+ WTO Accessions Group, which was coordinated by Afghanistan.

“7. The year 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the WTO. The Secretariat used its annual flagship event, the China Round Table on WTO Accessions, to review the contributions made by accessions to the multilateral trading system since 1995. The event also provided an opportunity for an exchange of ideas to explore the future expansion of WTO membership towards universality, including through possible improvements in the accession process. The year also marked a significant anniversary milestone for five Article XII Members2 – Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Jordan and Oman which joined the WTO in 2000, the year with the largest number of new members to date. Other anniversary milestones included the fifth anniversaries of Membership of Kazakhstan and Seychelles and the fifteenth anniversary for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, membership anniversaries have become an important occasion to reflect on the benefits and values of being part of the Organization.

“8. Finally, the thematic focus of the 2020 Annual Report was on the complementarities and synergies in negotiating WTO membership and regional trade agreements. Almost all acceding governments are involved in regional integration initiatives in parallel with their efforts to achieve WTO membership. The highlight of the year was the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to which all African WTO applicants are signatories. The Report’s thematic section builds on the rich discussions held on the topic during the 2020 Regional Dialogues on WTO Accessions for Africa and for the Arab Region, as well as other meetings on Central Asia and Eurasia. It aims to explore key opportunities and challenges that may arise in a simultaneous pursuit of regional and global integration efforts and to provide a checklist of issues for trade negotiators to consider in maximising the benefits from the participation in multiple trade arrangements.”

The full report is embedded below.

WTACC38

Waiver of TRIPS Obligations During COVID-19 Pandemic

The sixth agenda item involves the effort from India and South Africa with a number of other developing or least developed countries to obtain a waiver from most TRIPS obligations on medical goods needed for the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a very controversial issue with developed countries with pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of vaccines and other items opposing the waiver on the basis of existing flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement and on the global efforts through the WHO, GAVI and CEPI to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries through COVAX with financial contributions from many countries, NGOs and others. See, e.g., February 19, 2021, COVAX’s efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines  to low- and middle income countries — additional momentum received from G-7 virtual meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/19/covaxs-efforts-to-distribute-covid-19-vaccines-to-low-and-middle-income-countries-additional-momentum-from-g-7-virtual-meeting/

The TRIPS Council received the proposal back in October but has been unable to provide a recommendation to the General Council. A meeting of the TRIPS Council earlier this month continued the lack of agreement. Thus, the agenda item will simply result in the item being continued on the General Council’s future agendas until resolved or dropped. See WTO, Members discuss TRIPS waiver request, exchange views on IP role amid a pandemic, 23 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/trip_23feb21_e.htm (” In this context and given the lack of consensus on the waiver request, members agreed to adopt an oral status report to be presented to the General Council at its next meeting on 1-2 March. The report indicates that the TRIPS Council has not yet completed its consideration of the waiver request and therefore will continue discussions and report back to the General Council.”); December 11, 2020, Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting of December 10, 2020 – no resolution on proposed waiver of TRIPS obligations to address the pandemic, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/11/council-for-trade-related-aspects-of-intellectual-property-rights-meeting-of-december-10-2020-no-resolution-on-proposed-waiver-of-trips-obligations-to-address-the-pandemic/; December 6, 2020, Upcoming December 11th Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting – reaction to proposed waiver from TRIPS obligations to address COVID-19, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/06/upcoming-december-11th-wto-council-for-trade-related-aspects-of-intellectual-property-rights-meeting-reaction-to-proposed-waiver-from-trips-obligations-to-address-covid-19/; November 2, 2020, India and South Africa seek waiver from WTO intellectual property obligations to add COVID-19 – issues presented, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/02/india-and-south-africa-seek-waiver-from-wto-intellectual-property-obligations-to-address-covid-19-issues-presented/.

Fisheries Subsidies negotiations — Draft Ministerial Decision

The WTO has been pursuing negotiations on fisheries subsidies to address sustainable fishing concerns since the end of 2001. Conclusion of the negotiations were supposed to take place in 2020 but WTO Members were unable to get the job completed in part because of disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. While completing the negotiations remains a key objective of Members and the incoming Director-General and such completion is needed to fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6, WTO Members continue to face a large number of challenging issues. See, e.g., WTO press release, WTO members hold February cluster of meetings for fisheries subsidies negotiations, 24 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_24feb21_e.htm; February 22, 2021, An early test for the incoming WTO Director-General — helping Members get the Fisheries Subsidies negotiations to a conclusion, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/22/an-early-test-for-the-incoming-wto-director-general-helping-members-get-the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-to-a-conclusion/.

Agenda item 7 is entitled “Supporting the Conclusion of Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations for the Sustainability of the Ocean and Fishing Communities — Draft Ministerial Decision — Communication from Brazil (WT/GC/W/815. The draft Ministerial Decision is an effort by Brazil to highlight the critical aspect of the negotiations which is to address environmental sustainability and presumably reflects Brazil’s concerns with the efforts of so many Members to protect their subsidies versus ensuring sustainable fishing. The document is embedded below.

WTGCW815

An attack on Joint Statement Initiatives

As reviewed in the incoming Director-General’s statement on February 15 and the summary of her statement by DDG Wolff on February 25, an important aspect of ongoing work at the WTO is a number of Joint Statement Initiatives that were started at the end of the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, including on e-commerce/digital trade.

Agenda item 10 is a frontal attack on such initiatives by India and South Africa through their paper, “Legal Status of Joint Statement Initiatives and Their Negotiated Outcomes”, WT/GC/819. I had reviewed the submission in an earlier post. See February 20, 2021, Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/20/will-india-and-south-africa-and-others-prevent-future-relevance-of-the-wto/. The agenda item will like see many delegations take the floor to support the use of joint statement initiatives within the WTO or to oppose them. While there won’t be a resolution of the issue, the challenge to the process could significantly handicap some of the efforts envisioned by the incoming Director-General to help developing and least developed countries take advantage of the e-commerce/digital trade world and eventually participate in talks and/or in an agreement. WT/GC/W/819 is embedded below.

WTGCW819-1

Agenda item 8 is viewed as related to agenda item 10. India has been seeking to limit WTO consideration of e-commerce issues to the multilateral efforts over many years within the existing Councils and Committees of the WTO (but where limited progress has been made).

COVID-19 and possible future pandemics — addressing existing trade restrictions and improving the functioning of the WTO to better handle in the future

The incoming Director-General has as a high priority to work with Members to improve monitoring of export restraints on medical goods and agricultural goods during the pandemic and working with Members to see that the WTO helps Members recover and better handle any future pandemics. The Ottawa Group had put forward a trade and health initiative in November 2020. See COVID-19 AND BEYOND: TRADE AND HEALTH, WT/GC/223 (24 November 2020). The communication was made by Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland. The document contains an annex reviewing the types of actions Members could take to improve the response to the pandemic and improve conditions going forward. Included in the annex to the communication are sections on export restrictions; customs, services and technical regulations; tariffs; transparency and review; cooperation of the WTO with other organizations. Several paragraphs in the communication review the issue of possible export restrictions on vaccines and are copied below.

“9. We realize that the challenges related to the scarcity of essential medical goods, now alleviated to some extent by the response on the supply side, may be repeated at the moment of the development of a vaccine or new medical treatments. In this context, we welcome the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), a global pooled procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines, managed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. This mechanism is critical in securing an equitable share of vaccines for all Members of the international community. As we strongly support the objective of this facility, we call on WTO Members to ensure that any export-restricting measures do not pose a barrier to the delivery of necessary supplies under the COVAX facility.

“10. We recognize the collaborative efforts of private and public stakeholders in the research and development of COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments. We encourage the industry to take actions to ensure access at affordable prices to COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for vulnerable populations and support voluntary pooling and licensing of IP rights to accelerate the development of such diagnostics, treatments and vaccines and scaling up their production. We recognize the importance of the IP system in promoting R&D and innovation for access to effective treatments. We note that the flexibilities provided by the TRIPS Agreement and reaffirmed in the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health remain available to protect public health and to promote access to medicines for all.”

The full document is embedded below.

WTGC223

Canada will be providing an update on the initiative at the General Council meeting and will likely see many Members provide comments on the agenda item.

Agenda item 9 was added by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay reflecting concerns by them (and presumably many other trading partners) about actions taken by the European Union to exert control over exports of vaccines from the EU in light of EU concerns about its own access to vaccines from manufacturers. See CALL TO PREVENT EXPORT RESTRICTIONS ON COVID-19 VACCINES, WT/GC/818 (18 February 2021). The document is embedded below.

WTGCW818

Since the EU is one of the Members who has pushed the trade and health initiative, there is concern by some WTO Members that its actions on vaccines run counter to the initiative it is supporting. Presumably the EU will argue that its actions are consistent with its rights under the WTO and is consistent with the language laid out in paragraphs 9 and 10 above.

The two agenda items are likely to show the concerns of many Members on equitable access to medical goods during the pandemic and the reluctance of at least some Members to reduce their flexibilities under the existing WTO rights and obligations.

Conclusion

DDG Wolff indicated that Members selected the incoming Director-General because she is “fearless in the face of daunting challenges”. There is no shortage of daunting challenges facing the WTO and its new Director-General. A few have been reviewed above.

Some good news is that the EU and the United States are supportive of many of the priorities laid out by DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her February 15 statement to the Special Session of the General Council as seen in the recent EU revised trade policy and the opening statement of USTR nominee Katherine Tai at yesterday’s Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing See February 18, 2021, The European Commission’s 18 February 2021 Trade Policy Review paper and Annex — WTO reform and much more proposed, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/18/the-european-commissions-18-february-2021-trade-policy-review-paper-wto-reform-and-much-more-proposed/; February 25, 2021, U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/25/u-s-trade-representative-nominee-katherine-tai-confirmation-hearing-before-the-u-s-senate-finance-committee/.

The challenges the new Director-General and the WTO Members face will be made harder by the lack among Members of a common vision and agreed purpose of the WTO, by the current inability of the WTO system to address fundamentally different economic systems, by the structure of decision making, by the failure of obligations to be updated to match level of economic development and role in global trade and by the related issue of how special and differential treatment is used. These challenges have resulted in a negotiating function that is broken, in a dispute settlement system that has no checks on the reviewers for errors or failures to operate within the bounds of authority granted in the Dispute Settlement Understanding and in the underperformance of the monitoring and implementation function.

Hopefully, DG Okonjo-Iweala will develop a strong personal staff and group of DDGs to help her attempt the seemingly impossible — getting meaningful progress and reform from the 164 current WTO Members. See February 13, 2021, Leadership change at the WTO — with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s arrival next week, what support team and early changes in the role of the Secretariat could help WTO Members move forward?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/13/leadership-change-at-the-wto-with-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-arrival-next-week-what-support-team-and-early-changes-in-the-role-of-the-secretariat-could-help-wto-members-move-forward/

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will get her first reality check at the General Council meeting on March 1-2.