Fisheries Subsidies negotiations

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 Fisheries Subsidies Agreement negotiations — the Chair’s May 11 text and the road to the July 15 virtual TNC meeting with trade ministers

On May 11, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules responsible for the ongoing fisheries subsidies negotiations presented a a Draft Consolidated Chair Text to a meeting of the heads of delegation. The news release from the WTO, “Fishing subsidies negotiations chair introduces new text in run-up to July ministerial,” 11May 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_11may21_e.htm, is copied below.

“The chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, introduced on 11 May a new draft text aimed at bringing members closer to agreement ahead of the 15 July meeting of ministers. The text is based on members’ collective work and proposes landing zones to curb harmful fisheries subsidies and ensure the sustainability of the world’s oceans.

“‘The aim of this new draft text is to serve as the basis for work toward a clean text to present to a meeting of ministers on 15 July,’ the chair told heads of delegations at a meeting of the Negotiating Group on Rules. ‘This leaves us just two months to finish. The shared sense of urgency is palpable, and we need to harness that sense to finally agree to the compromise landing zones that will represent the ambitious and balanced outcome that ministers in Buenos Aires mandated us to find, to make a substantial and tangible contribution to the health of our shared oceans.’ The new draft text is available here. View the chair’s statement here.

“Under the mandate from the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires in 2017 and the UN Sustainable Development Goal Target 14.6, negotiators have been given the task of securing agreement on disciplines to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, with special and differential treatment being an integral part of the negotiations.

“The chair noted that the draft reflects language from WTO members, whether reflected in proposals, or a facilitator’s work, or expressed during meetings and consultations. The whole text is up for discussion and it will ultimately be up to members to resolve the issues that remain open, he said.

“Members will have the opportunity next week to identify key issues they find the most difficult to agree on and then will convene in weekly meetings starting 24 May. Each week will be dedicated to a specific issue in the text.

“’I know it will not be easy. Nothing is easy when 164 members need to reach consensus, but it is doable. The good thing is that we have a complete text in front of us on which we can engage,’ the chair said. ‘Now it’s time to sprint for the finish line.’”

Draft Consolidated Chair Text and Explanatory Note

The draft consolidated chair text is nine pages in length and consists of an introductory page, eleven articles and sixteen footnotes. See Fisheries Subsidies, Draft Consolidated Chair Text, TN/RL/W/276, 11 May 2021, https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/SS/directdoc.aspx?filename=q:/TN/RL/W276.pdf&Open=True. Amb. Wills explanatory note is 26 pages and goes through both an introduction, a review of preliminary matters, a detailed discussion of each article and sub-article noting changes from prior drafts, and ends with a review of the work program going forward. See Fisheries Subsidies, Draft Consolidated Chair Text, Chair’s Explanatory Note Accompanying TN/RL/W/276, TN/RL/W/276/Add.1, 11 May 2021, https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/SS/directdoc.aspx?filename=q:/TN/RL/W276A1.pdf&Open=True. The text and explanatory note are embedded below.

W276

W276A1

The Chair’s explanation of modifications to earlier texts is useful to understand where major differences continue. Some of the issues with significant differences of views remaining or where attention needs to be focused in the coming weeks include:

  • whether the agreement will apply to fuel subsidies to fishing and fishing related activities at sea that are not “specific” within the meaning of Art. 2 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (Art. 1.2);
  • special and differential treatment provisions under Articles 3 (prohibition on subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (Art. 3.8)), 4 (prohibition on subsidies concerning overfished stocks (Art. 4.4)) and 5 (prohibition on subsidies concerning overcapacity and overfishing (Art. 5.5 Alt.1 and Alt. 2));
  • whether disciplines in Article 5 extend to “subsidies for a vessel not flying the flag of the subsidizing Member” (Art. 5.4);
  • specific provisions for least developed country Members (Art. 6);
  • fleshing out Article 7 on technical assistance and capacity building to developing and least developed countries;
  • what additional notification requirements are mandatory or subject to an “extent possible” exception under Article 8;
  • a range of institutional arrangement provisions under Art. 9 depending on whether the agreement is to be an annex to the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures or a stand-alone agreement.

To get a true grasp of the range of issues that still need addressing, a careful review of the Chair’s Explanatory Note is required. It is clear that major differences remain on a very large number of topics and many issues go to whether any agreement will truly address the sustainable development goal at the heart of the negotiations. Moreover, there are areas not yet addressed.

For example, looking at Articles 9 (institutional arrangements) and 10 (dispute settlement), there are several issues identified that do not appear in the draft articles such as when the agreement will come into effect and whether some types of disputes will be excluded and whether specific remedies for violations are needed. Paragraphs 129-132 of the Explanatory Note are copied below and review these matters.

“129. Before concluding my remarks on this provision, I would like to highlight one critical institutional issue that has not been discussed in full, which is entry into force. As you know, it could take many months if not years for a new WTO instrument to enter into force. This gap – as well as anything that Members may decide to do during this period, such as a provisional application of this instrument – could affect how we see certain issues. Now that we are in the endgame mode, I would urge you to turn your minds to this issue.

Article 10: Dispute settlement

“130. Dispute settlement, covered in Article 10, also depends on whether the disciplines become an annex to the SCM Agreement or a standalone agreement. This is because Article 30 of the SCM Agreement already provides for application of the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes (DSU) and special and additional rules for prohibited subsidies in Article 4 of the SCM Agreement. If the fisheries subsidies disciplines are annexed to the SCM Agreement, these existing rules of the Agreement would apply to the disciplines, unless we specifically decided to depart from them. The current text in Article 10 was added in 126/Rev.1 to reflect this default position.

“131. This text has remained unchanged since then, but this does not mean that we have not been discussing this. In fact, so far in 2021 alone, we have held dedicated sessions on various aspects of dispute settlement, such as non-violation claims and standard of review. And the views exchanged in those meetings were very helpful. In particular, there appears to be a general acceptance that the DSU and Article 4 of the SCM Agreement should be the starting point, and that we should not be inventing new dispute settlement rules for the fisheries subsidies disciplines. Reflecting this understanding, this Article is unbracketed in the new text.

“132. This is not meant to imply that there was full convergence on this provision, or that no more work is needed on it. In fact, during our recent meetings on dispute settlement, some Members wanted to specifically exclude non-violation claims or set a separate standard of review. In addition, I am well aware of the views that fisheries-subsidies-specific remedies and/or countermeasures could be crafted. Removing the square brackets here only means that Article 4 of the SCM Agreement and the DSU are a starting point, on which we can build as needed.”

An active schedule leading up to the July 15 virtual TNC meeting with trade ministers

The Chair on page 26 of his Explanatory Note outlines next steps. With only eight weeks until the virtual TNC meeting with trade ministers to see if a final agreement on fisheries subsidies can be reached, not surprisingly Amb. Wills outlines a very busy schedule of meetings essentially requiring focus and heads of delegation and capital involvement every week. The level of activity is explained in paragraphs 142-146 of Amb. Wills’ Explanatory Note, copied below.

“142. As I said during the last TNC meetings, I will be calling on all of you to engage intensively, in a compromise-seeking, convergence-oriented mode, aimed at quickly finding acceptable landing zones. I also ask you to give these negotiations priority, and to be ready to meet at short notice and in a range of different configurations – be it bilateral meetings, small-group consultations, confessionals, or plenary sessions, including with the engagement of the DG as appropriate – as well as bilateral consultations. If needed, we also need to be ready to work nights and weekends to get this done.

“143. I appreciate and count on your flexibility on the substance and process, as we head into this very intensive phase of our work. Though we should remain flexible, I understand from many of you that a calendar of activities would be useful for your preparation, especially if you require input from capitals. Therefore, I intend to organize thematic weeks starting the week of 24 May as follows:
“• Each week will be dedicated to a specific pillar or pillars from the text.
“• The first two days of each week would be for consultations. This would be an opportunity for Members to reach out to me, and for me to reach out to Members, in respect of particular issues regarding that week’s theme.
“• The rest of each week would be dedicated to meetings in various configurations. This is where flexibility would be required given that the form of meetings would depend on each topic.
“• I can assure you that the principles of transparency and inclusiveness will be respected. And in this regard, I plan to give transparency briefings each week.

“144. An outline of this structure, including the themes for each week, will be circulated shortly. I hope that you will find this calendar of activities useful in terms of your planning.

“145. To help my thinking in structuring specific topics of discussion, I would like to start by first touching base with each of you before we start work during the thematic weeks. Therefore, on 20 and 21 May I intend to hold brief HoDs plus one, in-person, 10-minute confessional style meetings with interested delegations. The idea is for you to identify up to three issues in the text that are the toughest for your delegation. These meetings will be short and to the point; all you have to do is come with your list of those three tough issues and share it with me. Further details, including how to schedule a slot, will be communicated shortly.

“146. I look forward to engaging with all of you during this final stage of these negotiations. I know it will not be easy. Nothing is easy when 164 Members need to reach consensus, but it is doable. The good thing is that we have a complete text in front of us on which we can engage. I am sure no delegation will be entirely happy with the text – you will all find something you don’t like, in addition to things that you do like. Let us now figure out those key issues that require further teasing out in Geneva so that we can present something to Ministers that provides them with clean and straightforward options in July. As I said at the last TNC, the Negotiating Group on Rules has come a long way. Your leadership and willingness to engage over the last year has led us to this point. Now it’s time to sprint for the finish line.”

Conclusion

Ambassador Wills has laid out a very aggressive work program to conclude an agreement that has been being negotiated for twenty years. With fundamental differences among WTO Members on how ambitious an outcome is desired, the challenges, even with the revised text and hard work undertaken in the last year, remain steep.

In my last post, I indicated that in my view the TRIPS waiver proposal and controversy surrounding how to achieve equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines was likely to suck a lot of the oxygen out of the WTO for other issues. See 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/ . Hopefully that assessment will prove to be inaccurate. The world needs WTO Members to achieve a meaningful outcome on the fisheries subsidies negotiations. We should know in a few weeks whether Members can walk (efforts to achieve vaccine equity) and chew gum (fisheries subsidies negotiations) at the same time.

WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations — a push to complete negotiations by July

Following a series of “informal” Heads of Delegation meetings over the last two weeks on the fisheries subsidies negotiations, the Chair of Negotiating Group on Rules, Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, and the WTO’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala are pushing WTO Members to conclude the negotiations by July with an anticipated virtual Ministerial meeting in July to hopefully resolve remaining issues. See WTO press release, Ministerial meeting eyed for July as fisheries subsidies negotiations enter final phase, 21 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_21apr21_e.htm; Speeches — DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Negotiating Group on Rules — fisheries subsidies: Informal open-ended meeting at heads of delegation level, 21 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/spno_e/spno8_e.htm; Negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies, Summary of statement of Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, Negotiating Group on Rules chair, at meeting on fisheries subsidies, 21 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_21apr21a_e.htm.

The Fisheries Subsidies negotiations have dragged on for twenty years and typify the breakdown in the WTO’s negotiating function. The Director-General and many commentators have emphasized the critical need to conclude a fisheries subsidies agreement to show the WTO can still perform and address important trade issues. Stopping the overfishing that is threatening the sustainability of fishing around the globe is also an important UN Sustainable Development Goal (14.6).

The challenge for the WTO Members is actually achieving a meaningful agreement. While there is “progress” identified by the Chair’s summary statement on April 21st, his description of open issues in just three areas suggests the talks remain mired in division among those wanting meaningful reform and those seeking to largely escape modification to existing practices. The summary of Amb. WIlls statement is copied below.

“As you know, at the start of last week’s meetings at the level of heads of delegations, Dr Ngozi had called on members to engage intensively with a view to close the fisheries subsidies negotiations by July. I found the week-long meetings, which amounted to nine sessions totalling 27 hours, to be constructive overall. At this high level of discussions, we saw flexibility and genuine attempts to compromise. And as we enter the final phase of the negotiations, we will need members’ political will to make tough calls, first at the heads of delegation level here in Geneva, and then at a Ministerial engagement which we envisage for some point before the summer break, in virtual format.

“Turning first to the meetings that we held last week: I organized the discussions at the level of heads of delegations on three key issues where we seem to have exhausted the technical discussions and needed higher-level attention to make progress on finding convergence. These issues were:

“- A possible exemption for subsidies to subsistence, artisanal, or small-scale fishing;

“- Due process requirements for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing determinations; and

“- The approach to the overcapacity and overfishing prohibition.

“In many ways, the approach to the overcapacity and overfishing disciplines — the third issue I mentioned — is at the heart of our negotiations. I think last week’s discussions brought us a step closer to reaching convergence on this pillar.

“Let me be more specific. The discussions on overfishing and overcapacity focused on the structure that is now found in the draft consolidated document, what we call the ‘hybrid’ approach. In doing so, views were exchanged on the list of subsidies that would be presumptively prohibited under this pillar.

“In addition, members discussed a paragraph that provides for a sustainability-based flexibility, so a member may grant or maintain subsidies under the overfishing pillar if it demonstrates implementation of measures for the sustainability of fish stocks. Some members suggested notification procedures to deal with this required demonstration. There were additional suggestions to make this article more acceptable such as limiting this provision to a geographical area, for a particular period and/or  designing a technical assistance and capacity building mechanism to help developing members build enough data to apply the sustainability standards proposed in the draft text.

“Delegations’ views on how to advance our textual work on this key element of the disciplines still differ in certain respects. However, some members showed flexibility to consider outcomes they could live with, not necessarily the one they prefer. Most importantly, I am very happy that instead of only pointing to perceived shortfalls in the current text or in the views of other members, some constructive suggestions for bridging the gaps were made.

“As for discussions on a possible exemption for subsidies to subsistence, artisanal, or small-scale fishing: I detected a genuine step forward in the willingness of some members to consider a formulation different to that of their own preference. However, there are still some difficult and interlinked issues under the topic of subsistence, artisanal or small-scale fishing; and all of them have to be weighed carefully as we further explore possibilities for an outcome on this issue that could be agreed by members.

“On due process requirements for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing determinations: My own take-away from these exchanges was that members seem to have common concerns but with different views on how we approach them, and in fact ultimately there were some new suggestions made in the room that attracted a certain amount of interest. So that was a positive dynamic.

“In addition, an April 8 meeting on the prohibition of subsidies to overfished stocks made it clear that we will all need to reflect more on how to coherently address the issue of overfished stocks in the overall context of the disciplines.

“Turning now to the process going forward: I have briefed Dr Ngozi on the outcome of last week’s cluster and we have been brainstorming on next steps to achieve a conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations by July.

“For one, reaching an outcome this summer means that we will need higher-level, capital-based decision-making soon. In particular, we envisage Ministerial engagement at some point before the summer break, which starts three months from now. Dr Ngozi, in her statement to members this morning, elaborated that this means that we will be asking Ministers to meet virtually in July with a focus on fisheries subsidies and possibly one or two other topics. The aim of that meeting will be for Ministers to review a very advanced, hopefully final, text.

“It will be important, in the near future, to capture in a new, or revised text the progress that we have made since our current text was issued (that we should recall was December last year), and aiming at possible middle-ground points on outstanding issues. I have been hearing this call from many members. This next text will be important, as it will cover five months of our work and as it will form the basis of our work toward the cleaner text for Ministers to consider.

“I also plan to engage with heads of delegations in various configurations and groupings soon and non-stop until the finish line.

“Dr Ngozi told members that final hurdles now need to be dealt with at the political level, including by heads of delegations in Geneva. ‘Our job is to protect the fish and to protect the many millions of fisher men and women who directly depend on the fish,’ she said.

“I could not agree more that time is running out and we must make our work count and make concrete progress.”

During the first twenty-five years of the WTO’s existence, a lesson repeatedly learned is that bringing ministers together prematurely does not advance resolution of negotiations. Amb. Wills statement and the statement of the Director-General understand the need to get to a near final text with a minimum of brackets before the virtual meeting of Ministers. The understood risk is that the snail’s pace of progress in the negotiations will leave ministers with too many issues to resolve. While DG Okonjo-Iweala is doing outreach to ministers and hearing support for concluding the talks, the limited progress in Geneva to date suggests major challenges in the coming months. Should there be a failure to make sufficient progress, it would be better to postpone the virtual meeting. The Director-General’s statement is copied below.

“Thank you, Santiago, and good morning excellencies and colleagues. That was a very informative report and I am glad to hear that there was constructive engagement by all of you Heads of Delegation at last week’s meetings. I had promised last week that you would see me again soon, and now that you have finished your cluster of meetings, I thought it would be a good idea to join you today and share some further reflections on how I see this process unfolding over the next months. For now, I would like to emphasize three key points.

“1. First, when Santiago says “Ministerial engagement” this means that we will be asking Ministers to meet virtually in July with a focus on fisheries subsidies and possibly one or two other topics. The aim of that meeting will be for Ministers to review a very advanced, hopefully final, text.

‘2. This brings me to my second point, the text. We have to present to Ministers a text that is complete and clean enough for them to constructively engage and take decisions. Thus, options and brackets will need to be very few. We must have closure in July.

“That means that our work here in Geneva over the next three months is truly critical. While clusters of meetings have served their purpose at the technical level, now we really need to pick up the pace, and engage in text-based negotiations that get us to compromise landing zones on all of the outstanding issues. To achieve this result, consultations will be convened frequently and in whatever configuration is necessary depending on the topic. I have told Santiago that I’ve rolled up my sleeves and I am ready to work any time whenever he thinks he needs my involvement. So I will be joining some of these meetings and possibly convening some of my own. The aim of such meetings and consultations will be to deepen the clarity on key issues and views, as we continue to work through issues and seek to identify possible landing zones. Please be assured that the principles of transparency and inclusiveness will be respected, and that no decisions will be taken behind closed doors, as Santiago has said, and I want to repeat it again because this is how we’ll build that trust that we need to get us through the finish line. While no delegation would be invited to every meeting, all voices will be consulted and heard, and Santiago will continue to report on all of these activities. My message here is that to succeed, we must all remain flexible, and continue to support the Chair as he guides the work toward an outcome. I also want to use this opportunity to thank Clarisse and the team from the Secretariat for their continued and able support to the Chair. We must also prioritize these negotiations over these few months, including late nights and weekends if needed. As you know, this is what it usually takes in the final stage of negotiations and I’m really strongly appealing that we prepare to roll up our sleeves to get there.

“3. And that brings me to my final point — your engagement as heads of delegations. It’s really time for you to take the reins. Last week showed that you are ready to take the lead in the negotiations. Your delegates have been working hard on these negotiations for many years, and collectively have brought us to this final phase. This is really a major achievement that needs to be recognized and we are very very grateful and thankful to your delegates for the way that they have brought us so far. It is, however, only natural that the final hurdles now need to be dealt with at the political level, and that’s by you. Therefore, all Heads of Delegation — I can’t say it often enough — should be ready to roll up your sleeves to work. If your delegates have not yet fully briefed you on all of the issues, please make sure that they do so. I can tell you that Santiago and I meet constantly to see how we can advance this. And please also maintain contact with your capitals to continually refresh your instructions as we move toward what all Members can live with. So many Ministers that I have talked with, literally two or three ministers practically every week either in person physically with proper social distancing or by Zoom, and all of them are really keen. I noticed a new spirit and I’m really happy they are keen to get this done. Yesterday, I was with the Trade Minister of Spain and we spent a lot of time on fisheries and I think it was a very good conversation. So that’s why I want to say reiterating well-known positions in lengthy statements will not serve. Please just leave your scripts outside the room and come in with open ears to listen to each other and then to exchange concrete ideas about how you could bridge your differences. This is the only way we can have an outcome by July.

“So those are the three specific points I wanted to make. Before I hand the floor back to Santiago, I would like to emphasize one more thing. Wherever I go and whoever I interact with, I recall the preamble to the WTO Agreement, and the mandate of these negotiations. People, jobs, sustainability, livelihoods — these are the words that jump out at me from the preamble every time. To me, our job is to protect the fish and to protect the many millions of fisher men and women who directly depend on the fish. These two are not mutually exclusive — protecting one does not necessarily compete with protecting the other. In fact, fishing sustainably makes socio-economic sense. If there are no more fish in the sea, then the source of food security and livelihood, that was so talked about in the Marrakesh preamble, of those who depend on the fish also will be gone. I say all of this to remind us, as we engage over these next few months, of why we are here, doing this particular work. If we present to Ministers a text that meets that overall objective, then we will have done our job. On the other hand, if the focus over the next few months is to find ways to exclude ourselves from these responsibilities, then we will not be able to deliver on our mandate. And that is not really an option. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not.

“With that, I would like to thank Santiago for inviting me to join you today. I would like to thank you and your delegates for the wonderful work that you are doing and for listening. I remain committed to reaching a meaningful outcome soon and I am sure that if we all put in the hard work needed, we will get there in July. I really want to end on this optimistic note. I believe we can do it. I just see light at the end of this tunnel. So let’s just push a little bit more. Thank you.

“I will leave you now and come back to you, and I wish you continued progress in the coming days. We’ll talk soon.”

Extraordinary lack of transparency for the public in the fisheries negotiations

In prior posts I have reviewed progress in the fisheries negotiations and the extraordinary lack of transparency in terms of proposals from parties and in the draft text and various revisions. See, e.g., December 16, 2020, The fisheries subsidies negotiations – U.S. comments from December 2 meeting add clarity to the inability to achieve an agreement and the lack of “like-mindedness” among Members, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/16/the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-u-s-comments-from-december-2-meeting-add-clarity-to-the-inability-to-achieve-an-agreement-and-the-lack-of-like-mindedness-among-members/; December 15, 2020, The fisheries subsidies negotiations – failure by WTO Members to deliver an agreement by the end of 2020, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/15/the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-failure-by-wto-members-to-deliver-an-agreement-by-the-end-of-2020/; November 5, 2020, Revision to draft fisheries subsidies text presented by Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules at November 2 informal open-ended meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/05/revision-to-draft-fisheries-subsidies-text-presented-by-chair-of-the-negotiating-group-on-rules-at-november-2-informal-open-ended-meeting/; June 29, 2020, Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/29/update-on-fisheries-subsidies-draft-consolidated-text-from-june-25/; June 27, 2020, Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/. While the draft texts have been circulated as room documents (and hence not released publicly), to date the drafts have been leaked by various sources, so over time one can find the draft texts if one spends the effort. However, my analysis of the retreat from transparency is troubling and is being replicated in many other areas at the WTO. Here is what I wrote in June 2020 in the June 27 post relevant to the lack of transparency:

“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.”

There have been 192 documents submitted as room documents in the fisheries subsidies negotiations (the vast majority since 2019) under the RD/TN/RL/ series that deal with draft text, proposals by Members, background information, etc. There are other series designed to largely hide the workings of the WTO, such as JOB documents. JOB/RL/ has only 12 documents shown of which 10 are not available publicly. By contrast to the large volume of room documents in the fisheries negotiations, there are only 16 documents in the TN/RL series (all are publicly available) since the beginning of 2019 (proposals, minutes, etc.) as the negotiations have largely gone dark to the public.

This is a sharp departure from negotiations during the Doha Development Agenda where draft texts and most proposals were public when distributed to Members (Dispute Settlement was an outlier where the Chairman late in the process started to make text public).

The WTO Members and the Secretariat need a much more uniform approach to transparency, but there is little indication that Members care or that the Secretariat puts any focus on uniformity of approach. The WTO needs to restart releasing proposals and draft texts to the public. The current approach is unacceptable and should be opposed by those with an interest in the operation of the WTO.

Conclusion

While WTO Members profess to understand the critical need to achieve an agreement on fisheries subsidies this year, progress is painfully slow and the level of ambition unclear despite 20 years of effort. The push for a breakthrough by July is in keeping with what Members have suggested is needed and the WTO’s Director-General’s desire for deliverables by the 12th Ministerial Conference being held in late November 2021 in Geneva. The WTO has no track record of achieving breakthroughs in negotiations through virtual meetings (and last year had push back from some Members who did not want to conduct any negotiations that way). Moreover, the WTO has a long history of scheduling Ministerials to close negotiations when there has not been sufficient progress to reduce open issues to a manageable number. Both DG Okonjo-Iweala and Ambassador Wills understand the need to get the text close before the proposed virtual Ministerial. Time will tell whether the Members will come together and produce a meaningful agreement or simply continue to talk past each other.

Seafood obtained from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing — U.S. International Trade Commission report on estimated imports into the U.S.

For twenty years, Members of the World Trade Organization have been negotiating disciplines on fisheries subsidies to help curb illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing). Achieving an agreement is critical to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.6. See, e.g., WTO, 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. The WTO Members had hoped to conclude negotiations in 2020 and are working to conclude the negotiations by the 12th Ministerial Conference, now scheduled for the week of November 29, 2021 in Geneva. See WTO, Twelfth Ministerial Conference to take place in Geneva in late 2021, 1 March 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/minis_01mar21_e.htm.

On December 19, 2019, the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means and the Chairman of the Trade Subcommittee of Ways and Means submitted a letter to the U.S. International Trade Commission requesting an investigation into IUU fishing and its effects on the U.S. industry. The text of the request is copied below.

“We are writing today to request that the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) conduct an investigation of the potential economic effects on U.S. fishermen of competition with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) seafood imports. IUU seafood includes products obtained in contravention of fisheries management regulations or in violation of labor laws. Trade in IUU seafood products includes not only IUU catch that is sent directly to end markets, but also IUU raw material inputs that are further processed into aquaculture feed or seafood products for human consumption.

“Up to 31 percent of the global catch of fish reportedly comes from IUU fishing, at an estimated value of more than $23 billion per year. IUU fishing contributes to the overexploitation of fish stocks, threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities, jeopardizes food security, and harms marine ecosystems. IUU fishing also creates unfair competition for U.S. fishermen as imports account for 90 percent of U.S. seafood consumption. China plays an enormous role in the global production and trade of seafood and is the largest seafood trade partner of the United States. China also has been ranked as worst among 152 coastal countries based on the prevalence of IUU fishing and the country’s response to it.

“To better understand the size, scope, supply chains, pricing pressures, and potential economic effects of this problem, we request that the US ITC conduct an investigation, and prepare a report, pursuant to section 332(g) of the Tariff Act of 1930. Based on available information, we request that the Commission’s report provide, to the extent practicable:

“• A review of the existing data and literature on the prevalence of IUU products in the U.S. import market, and an overview of international mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement to address IUU fishing;

“• A description of the size and structure of the U.S. commercial fishing industry;

“A description of major global producers of IUU products, including but not limited to China, and country practices related to IUU production and exports.

“• An analysis of the extent to which IUU product is imported into the United States, as well as major U.S. import sources and global supply chains of such products; and

“• A quantitative analysis of the economic impact of IUU imports on U.S. commercial fishermen and U.S. commercial fishing production, trade, and prices.

“We request that the Commission deliver the report by 12 months from the date of this letter. As we intend to make the report available to the public, we request that confidential business information not be included in the report. Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated.

“Sincerely,

“Richard E. Neal, Chairman
“Earl Blumenauer, Chairman, Trade Subcommittee”

The U.S. International Trade Commission released its report,which is dated February 2021, last week. See USITC, Seafood Obtained via Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing: U.S. Imports and Economic Impact on U.S. Commercial Fisheries, Inv. 332-575, Publ. 5168 (February 2021). The request letter is included in the report at Annex A.

On March 18, 2021 Chairmen Neal and Blumenauer released a statement including statements from Oceana and from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). See U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, NEAL, BLUMENAUER STATEMENT ON THE U.S. INTERNATIONAL TRADE COMMISSION’S REPORT “SEAFOOD OBTAINED VIA ILLEGAL, UNREPORTED, AND UNREGULATED FISHING: U.S. IMPORTS AND ECONOMIC IMPACT ON U.S. COMMERCIAL FISHERIES”, March 18, 2021, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/neal-blumenauer-statement-us-international-trade-commission-s-report. The press release is copied below.

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, the U.S. International Trade Commission released their findings pursuant to a Tariff Act of 1930 section 332 investigation requested by Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) on the economic impact of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) seafood, including the use of forced labor, on the U.S. fishing industry.  The report found that the U.S. imported $2.4 billion worth of illegal seafood in 2019 and that addressing the illegal imports would create U.S. jobs, protect U.S. consumers and benefit U.S. fishers by an estimated $60.8 million.

“’Far too much illegal seafood is making its way onto our dinner plates and more must be done,’ said Chairman Neal. ‘By building on what we fought to include in USMCA, enhancing the tracing of our seafood supply chains, and cracking down on IUU fishing practices, we can better protect our oceans and ultimately give Americans the peace of mind that they are eating safe, legal seafood.’

“’When people go to the grocery store, they want to know that the seafood is safe and legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled. Unfortunately, too much illegal seafood is currently making its way into the country, undermining our hardworking U.S. fishing industry and putting consumers at risk,’ Blumenauer said. ‘It’s clear that we need stronger enforcement standards to protect individuals, workers, and fishing habitats.’

“Chairman Neal and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Blumenauer are joined by Oceana and WWF in recognizing the study.

“’Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing not only wreaks havoc on fisheries and ocean wildlife, but also undermines domestic fishers and seafood consumers. The United States has advanced programs to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud, but it’s clear that more needs to be done. The U.S. must expand Seafood Import Monitoring Program to all seafood, trace fish from boat to plate and expand transparency of fishing to help stop IUU products from entering the U.S. and competing with legally sourced seafood,’ said Beth Lowell, Deputy Vice President of U.S. Campaigns at Oceana.

Michele Kuruc, Vice President of Ocean Policy at WWF noted that, ‘this report reminds us that the ramifications of illegal fishing go far beyond the health of our oceans. It depletes our oceans, fuels labor and human rights abuses, and leaves our domestic producers at an economic disadvantage. People are harmed, economies are hurt, and our oceans and planet are in peril.   Eradicating illegal fishing requires a whole of government approach, as our current definitions, processes and efforts have far-reaching limitations. The good news is we have the tools, but they need to be strengthened to get the job done.  The U.S. needs to expand the species covered by our current monitoring program. We need to track all imported species, not just a small group, to truly tackle this issue and protect our oceans, foster economic growth and empower people who rely on oceans for food and income.’”

Thus, the U.S., despite having some provisions to address IUU fishing, still accounts via imports for an estimated 10% of global IUU fishing ($2.4 billion of an estimated $23 billion global total).

The USITC Report

The U.S. International Trade Commission report is 468 pages including Annexes. The report is embedded below.

ITC-report-on-illegal-fishing

While many countries have some part of their marine capture or imports from other countries that are IUU, the USITC report focuses on certain countries and identifies the types of practices that are considered to result in marine capture being considered IUU.

“There are many fishing practices that can constitute an IUU violation. Often, a vessel may fish in an area where it is not authorized. Vessels may also fish during seasons in which particular fishing grounds are closed. IUU fishing also includes harvesting in excess of quotas set by fishery management authorities or misreporting the volume of landings to those authorities. Fishing with disallowed gear types or methods, or in violation of environmental restrictions such as those concerning bycatch, also constitute IUU fishing. Labor violations that have been widely documented in segments of the fishing industry include forced labor, human trafficking, child labor, and physical abuse of workers on board fishing vessels.” USITC Publ. 5168 at 11-12.

Below are some tables from the report which show the estimated volume of IUU imports from major sources of seafood imports into the United States and then some detail on the basis of IUU fishing from a subset of those countries. The tables are taken from pages 114, 115, 463, 14 and 15 of the USITC report respectively.

The USITC report covers a lot of ground and reviews existing literature and studies and provides its methodology for both estimating the share of imports that are IUU as well as the modeling used to estimate economic effects on domestic industry. It is clear that many countries contribute to the IUU problem. Some countries including the U.S. and the EU have tools available to deal with IUU imports and that such tools are viewed as helpful but not totally fit for purpose based on limited scope, at least in the United States.

Interest in the issue from the U.S. Congress and a focus of the Biden Administration on addressing both environmental- and labor- related issues implies that the U.S. will likely be looking for ways to beef up enforcement of the import monitoring program on seafood.

While the report doesn’t address fisheries subsidies, the report should nonetheless be helpful to WTO Members engaged in the fisheries subsidies negotiations. The report adds dimension to the importance of WTO Members reaching an ambitious agreement on fisheries subsidies as the challenges of IUU fishing are not only environmental in nature but also go to fairness in competition.

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.


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, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/16/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, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_22jan21_e.htm; 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, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/fisheries-talks-chair-divides-remain-members-have-what-they-need-deal. 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.

Afterthought

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.

The WTO Informal Ministerial of January 29, 2021 — hope for progress at the WTO in 2021

Switzerland typically hosts an informal ministerial meeting of WTO trade ministers on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s January Davos event. This year both were handled remotely.

The informal ministerial was summarized in ten points by the Swiss Confederation President Guy Parmelin at the end of the event. President Parmelin’s statement is available here, https://www.newsd.admin.ch/newsd/message/attachments/65098.pdf, and is copied below.

Virtual Informal WTO Ministerial Gathering, 29 January 2021

Personal Concluding Remarks by the Chair, President of the Swiss Confederation and Head of the Federal Department for Economic Affairs, Education and Research, Guy Parmelin, Switzerland

“29 Ministers and high officials representing a broad spectrum of the WTO membership attended this year’s Informal World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Gathering in virtual format. In concluding and with warm thanks to all participants for their contributions, I would like to summarise the main points from our discussions as follows:

“• Ministers stressed the urgency of the swift appointment of a new WTO Director-General as well as the confirmation of the date and venue of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12).

“• Ministers reiterated their determination to maintain a credible multilateral trading system and to restore a climate of mutual trust.

“• Ministers expressed their concerns about the enormous social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. They highlighted the relevance of trade and the role of the WTO in containing the pandemic and promoting recovery. Many Ministers underlined the importance of ensuring the development of as well as an equitable and affordable access to medical goods, including vaccines. They addressed ways and means to achieve these goals, including the implementation of measures facilitating trade, the role of intellectual property and transparency.

“• Ministers regretted that the negotiations on fisheries subsidies could not be completed in accordance with the end-2020 deadline foreseen in SDG 14.6. In light of the significance of this process for the sustainability of global fisheries, Ministers concurred that a comprehensive and effective agreement on fisheries subsidies should be concluded as soon as possible. Ministers agreed to step up efforts with a view to finding mutually acceptable solutions consistent with all the elements of the negotiating mandate.

“• Ministers highlighted the importance of restoring a fully functional WTO dispute settlement system, which is a key pillar of the rules-based multilateral trading system.

“• Many participants argued for further progress in agricultural trade policy reform at MC12 and asked for an outcome on domestic support and other issues. The issues of public stockholding and the special safeguard mechanism were highlighted by several Ministers.

“• Many Ministers called for tangible outcomes, by MC12, on the Joint Statement Initiatives. Inter alia finalizing the process on Services Domestic Regulation and making substantial progress on E-commerce and Investment Facilitation as well as on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment.

“• The need to reform the WTO was widely acknowledged. A number of Ministers insisted on advancing diverse issues related to the special and differential treatment of developing and least developed countries. Some participants proposed to adjust WTO rules to present-day economic and competitive conditions.

“• Several Ministers supported new initiatives launched in response to global challenges such as the structured discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability.

“• Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to engage in the preparations for MC12 in order to advance key issues.”


The participants at this year’s informal ministerial included officials from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chad (coordinator for LDC Group), Chile, China, Egypt, European Union, India, Indonesia, Jamaica (Coordinator ACP Group), Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea, Mauritius (Coordinator African Group), Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland (Chair), Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and three officials with WTO roles — H.E. Mr. David Walker (New Zealand), WTO General Council Chair; H.E. Mr. Santiago Wills (Colombia), WTO Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, H.E. Mr. Alan Wolff, WTO Deputy Director-General. The full list with titles is embedded below.

List-of-participants-at-virtual-informal-ministerial-1-29-2021-65099

The good news for the informal ministerial was the position taken by the United States representative who reportedly indicated that the United States was actively reviewing the issue of the next Director-General and was intent on actively working on WTO reform. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Biden administration strikes ‘constructive’ tone in first word on WTO approach, January 29, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/biden-administration-strikes-%E2%80%98constructive%E2%80%99-tone-first-word-wto-approach; Politico, Biden administration joins call for ‘swift appointment’ of new WTO head, January 29, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/29/biden-world-trade-organization-463820. Under the Trump Administration, the United States had blocked the formation of consensus around Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala based on the U.S. view that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala did not have a sufficient trade background. See, e.g., January 26, 2021, Letter from variety of former U.S. officials to President Biden urges U.S. support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as next WTO Director General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/26/letter-from-variety-of-former-u-s-officials-to-president-biden-urges-u-s-support-for-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala-as-next-wto-director-general/. Hopefully, the current review of the issue by the Biden Administration, even ahead of President Biden’s trade team being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will result in the U.S. joining the support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, permitting the WTO to approve a next Director-General.

It was also reported that the United States, consistent with the Biden Administration’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, expressed interest in promoting recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and concluding an ambitious fisheries subsidies agreement. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Biden administration strikes ‘constructive’ tone in first word on WTO approach, January 29, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/biden-administration-strikes-%E2%80%98constructive%E2%80%99-tone-first-word-wto-approach. Fisheries subsidies negotiations have been going on for some twenty years, and many Members have remained more concerned with keeping their subsidies in place than agreeing to disciplines that would create conditions for sustainable fishing going forward. The Interest in the Biden Administration in working within the WTO on joint steps to promote recovery from the pandemic is different from the approach pursued by the Trump Administration which didn’t want to look at actions possible within the WTO (other than limits on export restraints on agricultural goods) while the world was dealing with the pandemic. The U.S. statement should mean more interest in exploring issues like those raised by the Ottawa Group. See November 27, 2020, The Ottawa Group’s November 23 communication and draft elements of a trade and health initiative, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/27/the-ottawa-groups-november-23-communication-and-draft-elements-of-a-trade-and-health-initiative/.

Other issues flagged in the Swiss President’s concluding remarks are issues of particular interest to some or many countries but not topics of clear agreement. For example, while it is likely that the United States will look for ways to resolve its concerns about longstanding problems in the WTO’s dispute settlement system, particularly around the Appellate Body, it is unlikely that there will be a swift resolution of the U.S. concerns, and hence there will likely be a continued impasse for at least much of 2021 on the return of a functioning two-stage dispute settlement system.

Similarly on domestic support in agriculture and other agriculture issues flagged, certain WTO Members have not supported further liberalization in agriculture while pushing for limits on domestic subsidies and rollback of liberalization commitments undertaken in the Uruguay Round. It is unlikely that there will be forward movement on these issues without greater balance in terms of tariff reductions on major agricultural products. Moreover, as noted in a recent post, other major distortions in agriculture that are not presently identified as domestic subsidies include widespread use of child and forced labor on many agricultural products. See January 25, 2021, Child labor and forced labor in cotton production — is there a current WTO mandate to identify and quantify the distortive effects?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/25/child-labor-and-forced-labor-in-cotton-production-is-there-a-current-wto-mandate-to-identify-and-quantify-the-distortive-effects/; January 24, 2021, Forced labor and child labor – a continued major distortion in international trade for some products, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/24/forced-labor-and-child-labor-a-continued-major-distortion-in-international-trade-for-some-products/. Such practices should be quantified and the level of potential distortion identified so WTO Members can decide how to address them in ongoing agriculture negotiations.

Progress is being made on Joint Statement Initiatives including e-commerce, services domestic regulation, investment facilitation and women’s empowerment. An open issue for these and topics in the sphere of trade and the environment (e.g., environmental goods agreement) is whether benefits provided by participants will be made available on an MFN basis or limited to participants, with the option of other Members to join in the future. See January 18, 2021, Revisiting the need for MFN treatment for sectoral agreements among the willing, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/18/revisiting-the-need-for-mfn-treatment-for-sectoral-agreements-among-the-willing/. For many Members liberalization could be speeded up if benefits in sectoral agreements go to those participating only while leaving the door open for other Members to join later when they see the value for them.

And on the important topic of WTO reform beyond the items listed above, there is little current agreement on how to deal with industrial subsidies and other practices that lead to massive global excess capacity, or on how to address access to special and differential treatment and many other areas of importance to some or many WTO Members.

Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided a statement during the virtual informal ministerial urging WTO Members to make 2021 a year of accomplishments. The WTO press release can be found here. WTO News, DDG Wolff urges WTO ministers to address the pandemic and make 2021 a year of action, 29 January 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/igo_29jan21_e.htm. DDG Wolff’s statement is copied below.

“My thanks to our Swiss hosts and to President Parmelin both for his remarks today and for his very thoughtful address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary celebration of the WTO last November.

“Ministers, you can make 2021 a year of substantial accomplishments at the WTO.

“There has already been a beginning.  In the first action of the year, Members accounting for most of the world’s agricultural exports committed to refrain from imposing export restrictions on purchases made by the World Food Program.

“The anticipated appointment of a new Director-General will bring needed leadership in moving toward concrete results.  But she can succeed only with your active engagement.

“I urge you not to wait for the Twelfth Ministerial Conference, delayed by the pandemic, to move negotiations forward to positive outcomes. 

“There is no reason why the twenty-year negotiation on fisheries subsidies cannot be concluded successfully — without a sacrifice of ambition — in the next few months.  Success hinges on Members’ willingness to accept a significant level of discipline on their own subsidies.  Political decisions and your active engagement will be required to bring about success.

“I urge you to address ‘trade and health’ forcefully and immediately.  Last year, trade made a vitally important contribution in supplying needed medical supplies to deal with COVID-19.  Proposals as to what more can be done must be deliberated now.  Cooperation on trade can accelerate access to vaccines.  There can be no higher priority.

“Consider how the WTO can further contribute to the economic recovery.  Members can take steps to ensure enhanced transparency, work to eliminate unnecessary barriers and agree that new restrictions will not be imposed.  Trade finance must be restored.  The WTO convened the major international financial organizations and banks to address this need in the aftermath of the financial crisis and it can do so now again.

“’Trade and climate’ must be on the WTO agenda.  Carbon border adjustment measures will likely result in conflicts unless Members engage in joint efforts to find mutually beneficial solutions.  The heightened interest of Members in a broad range of other environmental issues such as plastics pollution and the circular economy can be reflected in new agreements.   The WTO can be more visible as a steward of the planet by reviving and concluding the Environmental Goods Agreement

“The Joint Statement Initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, and services domestic regulation can bear fruit this year, building on what was achieved with respect to small businesses last year.  In addition, more progress can be made on the economic empowerment of women through international trade.  

“Concerns over income inequality have been growing.  The WTO’s rules-based system needs to be seen not only among countries but also within countries, as responsive to the needs of workers, farmers and all who wish to engage in international trade.  But international trade rules cannot substitute for domestic policy actions to make growth more inclusive.  When large numbers of people are unhappy with how the economy is working for them, trade will often receive undeserved blame.  The WTO is about fairness.  Its work will never be done in pursuit of that objective, but further progress can be made this year.

“There can be an outcome on agriculture — at least a down-payment and a defined work program going forward.

“During 2021, the WTO can likely welcome new WTO Members, as it continues to move towards universal coverage.  Comoros and Bosnia-Herzegovina may be ready, and over a dozen others are making progress.

“Last but not least, ‘WTO reform’ can become a reality, with actions taken to —

“- facilitate rule-making with wide participation,

“- achieve heightened enforcement through binding dispute settlement in a manner agreed by all, and

“- provide a strong mandate for a Secretariat to deliver all needed support to Members and to achieving the mission of the WTO. 

“We should greet this year with optimism and re-dedication.  With your strong engagement, 2021 can be a year to remember for what is achieved.

“Thank you.”

A presentation from the WTO Secretariat to Ministers needs to be positive, forward looking, aspirational and inspirational. DDG Wolff’s statement yesterday provides all of that. The first item mentioned, the joint pledge from 79 WTO Members not to restrict agricultural exports to the UN World Food Programme for humanitarian purposes is a positive for the world but follows the December failure of the WTO General Council to agree to the same by all WTO Members. See January 23, 2021, WTO and the World Food Programme – action by 79 Members after a failed December effort at the General Council, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/23/wto-and-the-world-food-programme-action-by-79-members-after-a-failed-december-effort-at-the-general-council/.

The challenge for the WTO in 2021 will be whether Members can come together in fact to achieve many of the important opportunities and needs in front of the Membership. While the history of the WTO since 1995 and the major divisions among Members at the present time would strongly suggest that 2021 will not achieve many of the things that are needed and possible, hope springs eternal.

U.S. perspective

The Trump Administration did an excellent job of identifying problems with the operation of the WTO whether from the longstanding failures of the dispute settlement system, to the existential challenges to the viability of the WTO from major Members whose economies have not converged to a full market orientation, to the out-of-date rules around special and differential treatment to all who claim developing country status regardless of economic development of individual members, to the need for greater transparency in many areas, including importantly subsidies, to the failure of the WTO to update rules to address changing technology and trade issues.

The Biden Administration has indicated its intention to work within multilateral institutions, including the WTO. Early action by the United States on the Director-General selection issue could provide positive energy to WTO Members in the coming months. There are topics where success can be made in 2021 either multilaterally or plurilaterally. But a lot of what is needed for meaningful WTO reform will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the short term. Hopefully, the Biden team will stay the course to achieve reform that both returns the WTO playing field to the level agreed at the time of concluding the Uruguay Round, finds ways to deal with the massive distortions not presently covered by WTO rules, works with others to bring the WTO into the 21st century and addresses the critical issues for global prosperity and sustainable development.

The fisheries subsidies negotiations — U.S. comments from December 2 meeting add clarity to the inability to achieve an agreement and the lack of “like-mindedness” among Members

Yesterday’s post reviewed the fact that the Chair of the Rules Negotiations had at the December 14 Trade Negotiating Committee and Heads of Delegations meeting indicated that WTO Members would not meet the deadline for finalizing a fisheries subsidies negotiation — the end of 2020. See December 15, 2020, The fisheries subsidies negotiations – failure by WTO Members to deliver an agreement by the end of 2020, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/15/the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-failure-by-wto-members-to-deliver-an-agreement-by-the-end-of-2020/.

The TNC and HOD meeting occurred twelve days after the conclusion of the latest round of negotiations on fisheries subsidies on December 2. The WTO press release on those talks described the issues being discussed by Members and the Chair’s intended path forward. See WTO, NEGOTIATIONS ON FISHERIES SUBSIDIES 2 DECEMBER 2020, WTO members conclude cluster of fisheries subsidies meetings, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/fish_02dec20_e.htm.

“On 2 December, at the conclusion of two days of meetings at the level of heads of delegation, the chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, said he will continue his consultations with WTO members on the next steps in the negotiations.

“During the meetings, delegations responded to questions posed by the chair about determinations of illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing; sustainability considerations in the prohibition of subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing; and special and differential treatment for developing and least-developed countries.

“Prior to this meeting, members have been involved in almost continuous “intersessional” discussions after the last cluster of meetings on 2-6 November to discuss many of the key parts of the revised text that the chair introduced on 2 November, including dispute settlement; subsidy disciplines in the areas of IUU fishing, overfished stocks, and overfishing and overcapacity; and special and differential treatment. The ‘Friend of the Chair’, Ambassador Didier Chambovey of Switzerland, also continued his consultations on special and differential treatment and reported back to members.

“The chair noted that much progress has been made this year in spite of the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, with members conducting intensive negotiations on the basis of a single consolidated draft document, issued in June and now in its second version. The chair said he will continue consultations in the coming days, ahead of the meeting of the General Council on 16-17 December, on how members would like to move negotiations forward.”

U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea provided comments during the December 2nd session. His comments reflect the substantial distance that remains in reaching agreement. See WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations – HoDs-Level meeting on Article on Overcapacity and Overfishing and Special & Differential Treatment, Statement of U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea (excerpts), December 2, 2020, https://geneva.usmission.gov/2020/12/03/us-statement-by-ambassador-dennis-shea-wto-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations/. His comments provide insight into just how far away from an agreement Members are, reflecting the lack of “like-mindedness” and the challenge of whether special and differential treatment should be limited to actual need and temporary or is a “right” for any Member declaring themselves a developing country. After nineteen years of negotiations, it is numbing to see how fundamental issues are not agreed to. Below are the excerpts of Ambassador Shea’s comments available from the U.S. Mission in Geneva’s website.

“We have listened carefully to the interventions today, some of which are not encouraging. We continue to see wide divergences in position – including with some Members categorically rejecting objective sustainability criteria in our discipline despite our clear sustainability mandate. This speaks volumes to the need for a capping approach as the solution. In other words, with some unwilling to eliminate obviously harmful subsidies, let’s look at reducing the numbers.


“Capping would provide the flexibility that Members continue to call for, as needed to allow Members to sustainably develop their fisheries sectors, while limiting and reducing the provision of harmful fisheries subsidies. We urge you, Chair, to give appropriate time to discussion of the capping approach, including filling in the placeholder currently in the revised consolidated text.

“Turning to your questions for this session, we do believe that you have asked the right question, which was whether there are any Members here who categorically assert the right to subsidize unsustainable fishing. Based on what we heard this morning, it remains unclear. It might be a question of language, or burden of proof. If we have misunderstood, and at least some Members are not opposed to considering sustainability, what is the sustainability test to which those Members are willing to submit?

“At the same time, it seems other Members wish to give themselves wide berth to avoid any sustainability accountability. If this is the case, then your text should clearly show two options for future high-level decision-making on the approach that will garner consensus.

“With respect to the drafting of the general prohibition on subsidies to fishing that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, we agree with what was expressed by others, in terms of bringing the sustainability test back as an objective threshold for what is meant when we refer to ‘contributing to overcapacity and overfishing.’ We believe this prior approach, which included reference to the rate of fishing and fishing capacity, is an important standard to clearly include as a threshold issue in the text of the general prohibition. We also agree with others that the inclusion of sustainability language presents a good faith effort to strike a balance and give Members policy space.

“As to the list of subsidies in this article, this must be an open, illustrative list, as others have noted. A closed list lends itself to calls for exceptions and exclusions, which will take us even further away from making progress on this discipline.

“Regarding any special and differential treatment when it comes to this overcapacity and overfishing area, Chair, you have again asked the right questions. Members have indicated a need for appropriate and effective SDT. Members have indicated their desire to grow their fisheries in a sustainable manner. We ask those Members what measures do they have, or would they put in place, to ensure that current or future subsidization would be done in a sustainable manner? A close consideration of this issue might help to unlock roadblocks throughout this text.

“Unfortunately what this conversation today has also illustrated, is that we are nowhere near knowing even some basic parameters of what ‘appropriate and effective SDT’ would look like in a negotiation that is predicated on sustainability.

“The number of hours this group has now spent on discussing SDT carve-outs, exceptions and flexibilities has been unparalleled. We doubt that doing this before we even know the disciplines, is a good use of time.
And in the context of focusing only on the most harmful of subsidies for our discipline, we question the need for any SDT. But as we have noted in the past, we are willing to consider it on a needs-based, transition-period approach, for the overfishing and overcapacity area only.

“And one other point I would like to make while I have the floor: I hear Members refer to SDT as a right, an entitlement. Or that we need to account for past subsidies in a future discipline and therefore focus solely on the ‘polluter pays’ concept. How do these assertions hold water when we are talking about the sustainability of a finite, shared natural resource? How can we all secure the livelihoods of our fishing communities, or the resources so greatly needed for food security, if harmful fisheries subsidies are provided which in turn leads to resource collapse and in essence, food insecurity? This is not only counter-intuitive, but runs against the experience of the last fifty years– and certainly nothing we should be supporting through WTO rules.

“Again, we would ask the question of how wholesale carve-outs are in-line with our mandate? Furthermore, to those who are seeking SDT to grow their capacity, we ask those Members to also explain how that is in line with the mandate, particularly if these same Members are resisting any kind of sustainability threshold for such growth? Instead of destroying any possibility of a coherent agreement, why can’t we consider a more tailored approach to addressing policy space of small producers, such as that set out in our cap proposal?”

Comment

The fisheries subsidies negotiations have from the beginning been limited to wild caught fish, thus excluding aquaculture. Also excluded are fish caught in inland lakes and rivers. There has been huge growth in developing countries of aquaculture over the last 20 years much developed for international trade. Countries with lots of small fishing operations have had concerns about protecting such small scale operators who largely fish relatively close to shore. The needs of these fishing populations has been a topic during the negotiations. But the fundamental challenge is stopping the creation of excess capacity and resulting overfishing happening in the oceans and seas of the world.

The challenge for sustainability of wild caught fish was laid out in the WTO Factsheet on the fisheries subsidies negotiations. WTO, Factsheet: Negotiations on fisheries subsidies, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/rulesneg_e/fish_e/fish_intro_e.htm.

Fish stocks and subsidies

“According to the latest data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, fish stocks are at risk of collapsing in many parts of the world due to overexploitation. It is estimated that 34% of global stocks
are overfished compared with 10% in 1974, meaning they are being exploited at a pace where the fish population cannot replenish itself. Declining fish stocks threaten to worsen poverty and endanger coastal
communities that rely on fishing. Roughly 39 million people depend on capture fisheries for their livelihood. Healthy seas are also important for food security, with fish providing 20% of animal protein needs on
average for 3.3 billion people.

“In theory, fishing should be held in check by its very environment: low fish stocks should mean fishing takes more time and costs more money. The problem, however, is that very often state funding keeps unprofitable fishing fleets at sea. Global fisheries subsidies are estimated to range from USD 14 billion to USD 54 billion per year.”

The problem of overfishing is a global problem, and it has been getting worse over time. Addressing the serious problem of overfishing has been one of the goals articulated by nations as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization monitors the challenges faces the world from overfishing. A report in June from the FAO noted that the problem of overfishing is particularly acute in developing countries which don’t have good management systems in place to prevent/reduce overfishing. See, e.g., Reuters, June 8, 2020, Overfishing on the rise as global consumption climbs: U.N. agency, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-food-fao-fish/overfishing-on-the-rise-as-global-consumption-climbs-u-n-agency-idUSKBN23F1CD (“The FAO said in a biennial report that tackling the issue would require several
measures including stronger political will and improved monitoring as fish stocks in areas with less-developed management were in poor shape. ‘While developed countries are improving the way they manage their fisheries, developing countries face a worsening situation,’ the FAO said.); Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020, The State of World Fisheries ad Aquaculture, Sustainability in Action, http://www.fao.org/3/ca9229en/CA9229EN.pdf (“The 2020 edition of The State of World Fisheries
and Aquaculture continues to demonstrate the significant and growing role of fisheries and aquaculture in providing food, nutrition and employment. It also shows the major challenges ahead despite the progress made on a number of fronts. For example, there is growing evidence that when fisheries are properly managed, stocks are consistently above target levels or rebuilding, giving credibility to the fishery managers and governments around the world that are willing to take strong action. However, the report also
demonstrates that the successes achieved in some countries and regions have not been sufficient to reverse the global trend of overfished stocks, indicating that in places where fisheries management is not in place, or is ineffective, the status of fish stocks is poor and deteriorating. This unequal progress highlights the urgent need to replicate and re-adapt successful policies and measures in the light of the realities and needs of
specific fisheries. It calls for new mechanisms to support the effective implementation of policy and management regulations for sustainable fisheries and ecosystems, as the only solution to ensure fisheries around the world are sustainable.” (page vi))

Subsidies to fishing fleets and other parts of the fisheries system are major contributors to overcapacity in the fishing fleets of the world and to overfishing around the world. The WTO’s role in the SDG 14.6 is to get multilateral rules that will reduce the excess capacity and permit sustainable fishing practices. Sustainable development in the handling of the oceans will mean greater long-term opportunities for people engaged in fishing for generations to come and ensure a stable supply of protein from the seas.

The inability of WTO Members to reach a meaningful agreement on fisheries subsidies after nineteen years of effort is a sharp reminder that the WTO’s relevance has substantially eroded because of an inability of the Membership to achieve agreement on even self-evident areas of critical importance to global commerce. While many Members are pursuing advancement on other issues (e.g., digital trade/e-commerce) through plurilateral negotiations, some topics — including fisheries subsidies — require multilateral agreements to effectively address the underlying problem. Will 2021 be the charm for finalizing a fisheries subsidies agreement? Hopefully. But the continued wide divergence in views on the needs of Members in the negotiations reflect not a lack of trust but rather, as Amb. Shea stated on December 14, a lack of like-mindedness amongst Members on the purpose and objectives.

.

The fisheries subsidies negotiations – failure by WTO Members to deliver an agreement by the end of 2020

Under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”), achieving an agreement to address fisheries subsidies which contribute to overfishing and other harmful effects was to be completed by the end of 2020 by the World Trade Organization (“WTO”). In fact tackling fisheries subsidies had been part of the Doha Development Agenda negotiations started at the end of 2001 at the WTO. Thus, negotiations have been underway for nineteen years.

In prior posts, I have reviewed the SDG that encompasses fisheries subsidies and the ongoing efforts at the WTO to achieve a meaningful agreement. See January 13, 2020, 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/; June 27, 2020, Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/; June 29, 2020, Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/29/update-on-fisheries-subsidies-draft-consolidated-text-from-june-25/; November 5, 2020, Revision to draft fisheries subsidies text presented by Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules at November 2 informal open-ended meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/05/revision-to-draft-fisheries-subsidies-text-presented-by-chair-of-the-negotiating-group-on-rules-at-november-2-informal-open-ended-meeting/.

On December 14th, there was a WTO Trade Negotiations Committee meeting held at Heads of Delegation level. At that meeting, the Chair of the Rules Negotiating Group, Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, provided an overview of developments in the fisheries subsidies negotiations and indicated that no agreement would be reached by the end of 2020, although progress was being made. See WTO, Negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies, WTO members committed to keeping up momentum in fisheries subsidies negotiations, 14 December 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/fish_14dec20_e.htm. Amb. Wills is reportedly planning on releasing to parties a second revision to the draft text he originally circulated on June 25. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, December 14, 2020, WTO fisheries talks chair makes it official: No agreement in 2020, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/wto-fisheries-talks-chair-makes-it-official-no-agreement-2020. Neither the June 25 text nor the first revision from November 2 were released to the public. It is unclear if the second revision to be released later this week will be made available to the public or not. Such public release is the norm for WTO texts that are being used for negotiations by the Members. The WTO press release is embedded below and is followed by a factsheet on the negotiations put out by the WTO.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-WTO-members-committed-to-keeping-up-momentum-in-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations

WTO-_-Factsheet_-Negotiations-on-fisheries-subsidies

Deputy Director-General Karl Brauner chaired the TNC meeting on behalf of all DDGs. He noted that all Chairs of negotiating groups had noted the lack of progress in 2020 and urged members to complete the fisheries subsidies in early 2021 among other challenges. WTO, Trade Negotiations Committee and Heads of Delegations Meeting, DDG Brauner urges members to step up efforts in early 2021 to agree on fish, other issues, December 14, 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/tnc_14dec20_e.htm. Specifically, the press release quotes DDG Brauner as saying the following on fisheries subsidies negotiations.

“We note in particular the intensive work on fisheries subsidies.

“As we have just heard from Ambassador Wills, the WTO – that is, you the Members – will not deliver an agreement on fisheries this year.

“I can only agree with the ambassador’s assessment and I am disappointed but not discouraged.

“While we are still short of the finishing line, the negotiations have made considerable concrete progress towards finding a solution that all Members can accept. Renewed engagement, with greater political will and pressure from civil society, can get us there.

“As Ambassador Wills said, meeting our mandate to reach an outcome will require compromise by everyone, on all issues.

“Activity must pick up quickly in the New Year and continue until we deliver. As the Chair said, we will be making a late delivery, and every additional delay will increase the debt that must be paid. I plead to you, nothing that can be done now has to wait for MC12 or any other deadline.”

Of course, while NGOs are anxious for a result and will continue to apply pressure on WTO Members to complete the negotiations, without public access to the text being considered the level of pressure will differ and may reduce the likelihood of an ambitious result.

Neither the statement of Amb. Wills nor of most Members who provided interventions are presently available to the public. However, the EU and the U.S. typically post the statements of their Ambassadors at TNC meetings after the meeting on their websites in Geneva. Below are excerpts from EU Ambassador Joao Aguiar Machado and from U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea on the fisheries subsidies negotiations.

EU Statement by Ambassador João Aguiar Machado at the WTO Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), 14December 2020, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/world-trade-organization-wto/90563/eu-statement-ambassador-jo%C3%A3o-aguiar-machado-wto-trade-negotiations-committee-tnc-14-december_en (emphasis in original).

“Starting with fisheries subsidies, I would like to thank the Chair, Ambassador Wills for his report and his efforts to guide us in the negotiating process. Under his stewardship, we have made significant progress: his text provides a basis for a deal and we have clarified a number of technical issues.

“It is nonetheless deeply regrettable that we will not meet our mandated deadline. There are reasons for this. The pandemic is a very real, physical constraint on the process, particularly for developing country delegations. In addition, the WTO lacks a Director General, who normally would have played an instrumental role in brokering compromise. But we should not hide the fact that Members have also not moved enough from their positions and the level of engagement is not yet sufficient.

“The pressure to deliver does remains. In fact, we now need to work even harder to reach agreement to prohibit harmful subsidies as soon as possible, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“That means putting sustainability at the center of the new instrument. The prohibitions should reflect the fact that WTO members have committed to the full range of goals under SDG 14, including improving their fisheries management. Sustainability is not a luxury; it is not a nice-to have. It is a must-have for every country who wants to fish not just tomorrow but also the day after tomorrow.

“Turning to special and differential treatment (SDT), I would like to thank Ambassador Chambovey for his efforts as Friend of the Chair.

“Nobody disputes that special and differential treatment is a part of our mandate. But appropriate and effective SDT cannot be carve-outs and exclusions from the disciplines we’re negotiating. Any SDT needs to be seen in the context of our common objective and commitment of safeguarding a shared global resource.

“That is why the EU proposes a needs-based approach with transition periods to give policy space where it’s needed but acknowledge developing countries also have to contribute and have responsibility for combating overfishing and overcapacity and fighting IUU fishing, and even more so when several developing countries are also major fishing nations.

On next steps: the EU remains optimistic that we can reach an agreement soon, but we also need to have a frank look at the way we proceed. In order to identify possible landing zones we need more in-depth discussions. In some cases, these difficult discussions are better to have in smaller, but representative groups. There is a deal to be made. We collectively should aim to conclude this agreement as soon as possible and in any case do so before the next Ministerial Conference.”

WTO Heads of Delegation Meeting, Statement by U.S. Ambassador Dennis C. Shea, Monday, December 14, 2020, https://geneva.usmission.gov/2020/12/14/us-statement-by-ambassador-dennis-shea-at-the-wto-heads-of-delegation-meeting.

“On fish, it is true we have made some progress thanks to the efforts of Santiago Wills with help from Didier Chambovey and despite this year’s unique challenges. But let’s be serious: this negotiation has been ongoing for nearly twenty years, and by that measure, progress is very modest. This is certainly not the timeline of an organization aspiring to be effective and relevant.”

Conclusion

The fisheries subsidies negotiations are the only multilateral negotiations presently underway at the WTO. After sixteen years of limited progress and following the UN adoption of Sustainable Development Goals, the WTO agreed to fulfill the SDG 14.6 by completing negotiations on fisheries subsidies by the end of 2020. As the comments of the Chair and the EU Ambassador make clear 2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year with the limitations on delegations flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic and from the departure of the Director-General Roberto Azevedo at the end of August and no new Director-General yet confirmed. Yet the failure to complete the negotiations this year reflect the widely divergent views of existing WTO Members on their obligations to contribute meaningfully to the solution of a global problem.

Yesterday, I had a post looking at Amb. Shea’s broader comments to the TNC and Heads of Delegations Meeting. See December 14, 2020,   WTO December 14th Heads of Delegation meeting – parting comments of U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/14/wto-december-14th-heads-of-delegation-meeting-parting-comments-of-u-s-ambassador-dennis-shea/. The second of his three areas where lack of likemindedness was most evident had to do with whether special and differential treatment is a “right” or a temporary departure from full obligations until Members can contribute fully. As reviewed in Amb. Machado’s statement yesterday, this same issue appears to be one of the major barriers to completing the fisheries subsidies agreement.

Finally, as a member of the public with an interest in developments in Geneva, the direction of many negotiations and many delegations to submit documents and draft texts as room documents, job documents or under other nomenclature that prevents the documents from being viewed by the public is unfortunate and contrary to past efforts at greater transparency in fact by the WTO and its Members. By Friday there will be a second revision to the draft text on fisheries subsidies. There has been no other multilateral negotiation at the WTO where such texts have not been treated as public documents. While there has been press leakage of the earlier drafts, transparency should be a core part of the WTO’s interface with the public, not dependent on leakage of restricted documents. Unfortunately, at the WTO, transparency is subject to an ever growing number of exceptions with no apparent internal controls to ensure maximum transparency in fact. For example, for years, statements of Chairs of negotiating groups were released to the public on the day of the TNC meeting as was the statement of the Chair of the TNC. Those statements are now JOB documents and are not released until the release of the minutes are available months later (statements are included as attachments), hence delaying a full understanding of positions of the various chairs for months.

Let’s hope that 2021 will see a conclusion to the fisheries subsidies negotiations that are meaningful in fact. And let’s also hope that there is a return to greater transparency.

Revision to draft fisheries subsidies text presented by Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules at November 2 informal open-ended meeting

In late June, the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules presented to the negotiating group a draft consolidated text in a room document, that was not made publicly available. RD/TN/RL/126. In two posts in June, I reviewed developments and the elements of the draft consolidated text based on its publication by Washington Trade Daily on June 26. See June 29, 2020, Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/29/update-on-fisheries-subsidies-draft-consolidated-text-from-june-25/; June 27, 2020, Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/

The latest round of informal open-ended meetings of the Negotiating Group on Rules (Fisheries Subsidies) occurred this week on November 2-4. On the first day, November 2, the Chair of the Negotiating Group speaking to heads of delegation, presented a revised draft consolidated text. RD/TN/RL/126/Rev. 1. This document has similarly not been released to the public, but was posted in the November 3, 2020 issue of Washington Trade Daily. Reference in this post to the contents of either version of the draft text or the presentation of text itself is based on my review of the documents as printed in the Washington Trade Daily issues noted.

The WTO Secretariat released a press release on November 2 entitled “Fisheries subsidies negotiations chair introduces revised draft consolidated text”. Within the body of the press release was a link to “Excerpts from the peaking notes of the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, Ambassador Santiago Wills”. Both documents are embedded below.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-chair-introduces-revised-draft-consolidated-text

WTO-_-Excerpts-from-the-speaking-notes-of-the-Chair-of-the-Negotiating-Group-on-Rules-Ambassador-Santiago-Wills

The June draft consolidated text contained ten articles. The first revision released on November 2nd contained eleven (adding Article 11, Final Provisions” and modifying the title of Article 8 to delete “and/or surveillance” leaving “Notification and transparency”).

The articles in the revised draft consolidated text are:

  1. Scope;
  2. Definitions;
  3. Prohibition on subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (“IUU fishing”);
  4. Prohibition on subsidies concerning overfished stocks;
  5. Prohibition on subsidies concerning overcapacity and overfishing;
  6. Specific provisions for LDC members;
  7. Technical assistance and capacity building;
  8. Notification and transparency;
  9. Institutional arrangements;
  10. Dispute settlement;
  11. Final provisions.

The negotiations have always been limited to marine wild capture fishing and don’t cover aquaculture or inland waters. Article 1 is consistent with the intended reach of any agreement. There has been no change to the text of Article 1. Footnote 1 has been modified from “For greater certainty, this excludes aquaculture and inland fisheries” to read “For greater certainty, aquaculture and inland fisheries are excluded from the scope of this [Instrument].”

Article 2, definitions, has been expanded from just three — “fishing”, “fishing related activities” and “vessel” to five in the revised draft by adding a definition for “fish” [“means all species of living marine resources, whether processed or not”] and for “operator” [“means the owner of the vessel, or any person on board, who is in charge of or directs or controls the vessel”]. “Operator” had previously been defined as part of footnote 2 to Art. 3.1

Prohibiting subsidies on IUU fishing is a critical part of the UN sustainable development goal 14.6. Article 3 lays out the prohibition and how the actions of a fishing vessel are determined to be “illegal, unreported or unregulated”. Various Members (coastal, flag State, port State, subsidizing) or regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements (Art. 3.2) can make such findings where the result is “based on positive evidence and follows due process” (Art. 3.3(b)). Most provisions in Article 3 remain unchanged. However, Art. 3.3 is broken into parts in the revised draft. Revised Art. 3.4 deletes the second sentence from the June draft (“The subsidizing Member may refrain from implementing the prohibition under paragraph 3.1 in case of a minor infraction.”), Articles 3.5 and 3.6 from the June draft are Articles 3.6 ad 3.5 in the revised draft. Article 3.3 from the June draft is reproduced below followed by the revised draft:

Art. 3.3 from RD/TN/RL/126 (June 25, 2020)

“3.3 A determination[6] under paragraph 3.2 refers to the final finding by a Member that a vessel [or operator] engaged in IUU fishing, or the final listing of a vessel [or operator] by an RFMO/A as a vessel [or operator] engaged in IUU fishing. [Determinations under subparagraphs 3.2[(a), 3.2(c), and 3.2(e)] shall be based on positive evidence; follow fair, transparent, and non-discriminatory procedures,] including prompt notification to the flag State [or subsidizing Member], if known, through appropriate channels, of the initiation of investigation, [and an opportunity to the flag State or subsidizing Member to provide information to be taken into account in the determination]; [and be in accordance with relevant international law.]”

Art. 3.3 from RD/TN/RL/126/Rev. 1 (November 2, 2020)

“3.3 (a) A determination[6] under paragraph 3.2 refers to the final finding by a Member and/or the final listing by an RFMO/A that a vessel [or operator] has engaged in IUU fishing.
“(b) [The prohibition under paragraph 3.1 shall apply where the determination under subparagraphs 3.2[(a), 3.2(c), and 3.2(e)] is based on positive evidence and follows due process, [in accordance with relevant international law]].
“(c) [If the flag State [or subsidizing Member] is known, a Member shall promptly notify the flag State [or subsidizing Member] of the initiation of an IUU investigation [, and provide an opportunity to the flag State [or subsidizing Member] to provide information to be taken into account in the
determination.]]”

Footnotes to Article 3 are basically unchanged in the revised draft text.

Articles 4 and 5 address the other core objective of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6, prohibiting subsidies on overfished stocks, overcapacity and overfishing. Both articles contain exceptions or special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (LDCs). Depending on whether advanced developing countries waive such provisions, there will be problems for some Members (including the U.S.) in having such exceptions or S&D provisions included in the text. Specifically, LDCs are exempted from the prohibitions of Art. 5.1 “for fishing or fishing related activities” (revised Art. 5.7(a)) and developing countries “for fishing or fishing related activities at sea within their territorial sea” (revised Art. 5.7(b)). The draft consolidated text attempts to cover some developing and LDC countries despite the above two exceptions where certain criteria are met (revised Art. 5.7(c)). It is assumed that Korea, Singapore and Brazil consistent with their prior statements that they would forego special and differential treatment in future agreements would not be eligible for the exceptions or S&D contained in the draft agreement if the final agreement contains such provisions.

There are no changes for Article 4 between the June draft and the revised draft released on November 2. For Article 5, Article 5.1.1, 5.1.2 and 5.1.3 of the June draft text are now in 5.1.1 and 5.2. Other than renumbering (e.g., old Art. 5.2 is revised Art. 5.3, etc.), the rest of Article 5 is substantively unchanged. The June Art. 5.1.1.-5.1.3 and the November revised 5.1.1 and 5.2 are copied below.

Art. 5.1.1, 5.1.2, and 5.1.3 from RD/TN/RL/126 (June 25, 2020)

“5.1.1 A subsidy contributes to overcapacity or overfishing if it reduces capital costs or operating costs of fishing or fishing related activities at sea regarding a stock that is being fished at a rate of fishing or with a measure of fishing capacity that is greater than would allow the stock to be maintained at a sustainable level.[11]

“5.1.2 For the purposes of this Article:
“(a) capital costs include costs of construction, acquisition, modernization, renovation or upgrading of vessels, purchase of machines and equipment for fishing vessels (including fishing gear and engine, fish-processing machinery, fish-finding technology, refrigerators, or machine for sorting or
cleaning fish); and
“(b) operating costs include costs of fuel, ice, bait, personnel, social charges, insurance, and gear; subsidies that reduce operating costs include, inter alia, income support of vessels or operators or the workers they employ, payments based on the price of fish caught, subsidies for at-sea support, and subsidies to cover operating losses of vessels or fishing or fishing related activities.

“5.1.3 Notwithstanding paragraph 5.1, a Member may grant or maintain the subsidies set out in paragraph 5.1 if the subsidizing Member can demonstrate that it has other policies in place that [effectively ensure] the stock or stocks in the relevant fishery or fisheries are maintained at a sustainable level.”

Art. 5.1.1 and 5.2 from RD/TN/RL/126/Rev. 1 (November 2, 2020)

“5.1.1 For the purpose of paragraph 5.1, subsidies that contribute to overcapacity or overfishing [include]:
“(a) subsidies to construction, acquisition, modernisation, renovation or upgrading of vessels;
“(b) subsidies to the purchase of machines and equipment for vessels (including fishing gear and engine, fish-processing machinery, fish-finding technology, refrigerators, or machinery for sorting or cleaning fish);
“(c) subsidies to the purchase/costs of fuel, ice, or bait;
“(d) subsidies to costs of personnel, social charges, or insurance;
“(e) income support of vessels or operators or the workers they employ;
“(f) price support of fish caught;
“(g) subsidies to at-sea support; and
“(h) subsidies covering operating losses of vessels or fishing or fishing related activities.

“5.2 Notwithstanding paragraph 5.1, a Member may grant or maintain subsidies referred to in paragraph 5.1 if it demonstrates that measures are implemented to maintain the stock or stocks in the relevant fishery or fisheries at a biologically sustainable level.[11]”

Article 6 has two subparts, one giving LDCs a transition period once a country is no longer an LDC and the other having Members “exercise due restraint in raising matters involving an LDC Member”. There are no changes in the revised draft from the June draft.

Article 7 calls on developed country Members and such developing country Members who indicate being in a position to do so to “provide targeted technical assistance and capacity building assistance” to developing countries and LDCs. There are no changes to the revised draft from the June original draft text.

As noted in my June posts, Articles 8-10 had not been fleshed out in the June draft consolidated text. The November 2 revised draft consolidated text has elements of each of these Articles as well as some material on the new Article 11, Final Provisions. The text is copied below.

“ARTICLE 8: NOTIFICATION AND TRANSPARENCY

“8.1 In order to strengthen and enhance notifications of fisheries subsidies, and to enable more effective surveillance of the implementation of fisheries subsidies commitments, each Member shall [, to the extent possible,] provide the following information as part of its regular notification of fisheries subsidies under Article 25 of the SCM Agreement[15]:
“(a) [PLACEHOLDER – LIST OF SPECIFIC INFORMATION TO BE NOTIFIED]

“8.2 Each Member shall notify [the relevant SCM body/the Committee established under paragraph 9.1] in writing on an annual basis of:
“(a) any list of vessels and operators that it has determined as having been engaged in IUU fishing; and
“(b) where applicable, a list of its fisheries access agreements in force with another government or governmental authority, and such notification shall consist of the titles of the agreements and a list of their parties.

“8.3 A Member may request additional information from the notifying Member regarding the notifications and information provided under paragraphs 1 and 2. The notifying Member shall respond to that request as quickly as possible in writing and in a comprehensive manner. If a Member considers that a notification or information under paragraphs 1 and 2 has not been provided, the Member may bring the matter to the attention of such other Member or to the [Committee].

“ARTICLE 9: [INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTS]

“[9.1 There is hereby established a [COMMITTEE NAME] composed of representatives from each of the Members. The Committee shall elect its own Chair and shall meet not less than twice a year and otherwise as envisaged by relevant provisions of this [Instrument] at the request of any Member. The Committee shall carry out responsibilities as assigned to it under this [Instrument] or by the Members and it shall afford Members the opportunity of consulting on any matter relating to the operation of this [Instrument] or the furtherance of its objectives. The WTO Secretariat shall act as the secretariat to the Committee.]*

“9.2 Each Member shall, within one year of the date of entry into force of this [Instrument], inform the [Committee] of measures in existence or taken to ensure the implementation and administration of this [Instrument], including the steps taken to implement prohibitions set out in Articles [3, 4 and 5]. Each Member shall also inform the [Committee] of any changes to such measures thereafter. The [Committee] shall review annually the implementation and operation of this [Instrument], taking into account the objectives thereof.

“9.3 Each Member shall, within one year of the date of entry into force of this [Instrument], provide to the [Committee] a description of its fisheries regime with references to its laws, regulations and administrative procedures relevant to this [Instrument], and promptly inform the [Committee] of any modifications thereafter. A Member may meet this obligation by providing to the [Committee] an up-to-date [URL][electronic link] to the Member’s or other appropriate official web page that sets out this information.

“[9.4 The Committee shall examine [frequency] all information provided pursuant to Articles 3 and 8 and this Article.]

“9.5 The [Committee] shall maintain close contact with the relevant international organizations in the field of fisheries management, especially with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and relevant RFMO/As.

“9.6 Not later than [X] after the date of entry into force of this [Instrument] and periodically thereafter, the [Committee] shall review the operation of this [Instrument] with a view to making all necessary modifications to improve the operation of this [Instrument], taking into account the objectives thereof.

“ARTICLE 10: DISPUTE SETTLEMENT

“[The provisions of Articles XXII and XXIII of GATT 1994 as elaborated and applied by the Dispute Settlement Understanding, and Article 4 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures shall apply to consultations, the settlement of disputes, and remedies under this [Instrument], except as otherwise specifically provided herein.]

“ARTICLE 11: FINAL PROVISIONS

“11.1 Except as provided in Articles [3 and 4], nothing in this [Instrument] shall prevent a Member from granting a subsidy for [natural] disaster relief, provided that the subsidy is:
“(a) limited to the relief of a particular [natural] disaster;
“(b) limited to the affected geographic area;
“(c) time-limited; and
“(d) in the case of reconstruction subsidies, limited to restoring the affected area, the affected fishery, and/or the affected fleet up to [a sustainable level of fishing and/or fishing capacity as established through a scientific-based assessment of the status of the fishery and in no case beyond] its pre-disaster level.

“11.2 (a) This [Instrument], including any findings, recommendations, and awards with respect to this [Instrument], shall have no legal implications regarding territoriality or delimitation of maritime jurisdiction.
“(b) A panel established pursuant to [Article 10 of this Instrument] shall not entertain any claim that would require it to address any issues of territoriality or delimitation of maritime jurisdiction that is contested by a party or a third party.”

Conclusion

It is obviously useful to have progress being made on a draft text, even if it is simply a draft from the Chair of the Negotiating Group. The Chair’s comments at the start of the meeting which are presented above show that the WTO Members remain far from an agreed deal. There remain some important “placeholders” in the draft text as well. In the end, it will be up to Members to decide if they can get past their differences and achieve an agreement that is meaningful in fact and will help the world move towards sustainable development in the handling of the global fish supplies.

The race to become the next WTO Director-General — where the candidates stand on important issues: fisheries subsidies and e-commerce/digital trade

[Updated on August 27 to incorporate comments by Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi of Moldova at a WITA webinar held on August 26.]

The eight candidates for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization, in looking at what topics should be moved forward or completed in negotiations were uniformly in support of an early conclusion to the negotiations on fisheries subsidies and on updating the rule book by moving the plurilateral negotiations on e-commerce/digital trade forward to at least a draft document by the twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference in 2021.

Background on fisheries subsidies

Fisheries subsidies have been subject to negotiation within the WTO since the launch of the Doha Development Agenda in December 2001 with limited forward movement in recent years. With the world’s wild caught supply of fish under severe pressure from overfishing, curbing illegal fishing and overfishing through subsidy disciplines became part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 (Goal 14.6)(SDG). This led WTO Members at the eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires to commit to completing the negotiations on fisheries subsidies by the twelfth Ministerial Conference which was scheduled for early June 2020 to permit completion within the time frame laid out in the UN SDG. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown in Geneva and in many countries, the time frame for completing the fisheries subsidies has slipped, although in late June, the Chair of the Rules Negotiating Group released a draft consolidated text to permit Members to see if a final push to complete negotiations could be made possibly yet in 2020. I have reviewed the fisheries subsidies in a number of prior posts. See, e.g., June 29, 2020, Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/29/update-on-fisheries-subsidies-draft-consolidated-text-from-june-25/; June 27, 2020, Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/; January 13, 2020, 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/.

Background on electronic commerce/digit trade

The agenda for the Uruguay Round was established in 1986 with negotiations completed in 1993 and the agreements that created the WTO signed in 1994. At that time, there was little electronic commerce. The driver of world economic growth over the last twenty-five years has increasingly been the rapidly developing technology that permits large amounts of communication and business activity to occur electronically. Music, movies, television, books, magazines have largely gone digital. Consumer purchases of goods and services have increasingly been done digitally. During the COVID-19 pandemic much of the world has depended on electronic communications to buy groceries, handle some medical needs, eliminate in person meetings replaced by virtual meetings and much more.

While the WTO as early as the second Ministerial Conference in 1998 agreed to study issues surrounding electronic commerce to develop rules that might be necessary, the WTO’s efforts have struggled for more than twenty years with periodic agreement to continue the review and extend a moratorium on customs duties on electronic commerce. See, e.g., Work Programme on Electronic Commerce, adopted by the General Council on 25 September 1998, WT/L/274 (30 Sept. 1998); Work Programme on Electronic Commerce, Ministerial Decision of 13 December 2017, WT/Min(17)/65, WT/L/1032 (18 December 2017). These two documents are embedded below.

274

65

At the eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, WTO Members with an interest in particular issues issued Joint Statement Initiatives basically indicating that the group of listed Members were going to move forward developing potential rules on the subject matter of interest, keeping the process open to any Member wishing to participate. One of the Joint Statements was on Electronic Commerce. See JOINT STATEMENT ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE, WT/MIN(17)/60 (13 December 2017). The statement is embedded below.

60

The JSI on e-commerce has been making good progress under the leadership of Australia, Japan and Singapore. A review of progress from the March 5 General Council meeting minutes is copied below (WT/GC/M/182 at 117):

“47. Australia (Joint Statement Initiative on Electronic Commerce)

“I will first provide a report on negotiations under the Joint Statement Initiative on Electronic Commerce on behalf of the co-convenors: Australia, Japan and Singapore.

“I will start with a short summary of the informal meeting of Ministers on the Ecommerce JSI held in Davos on 24 January.

“At this meeting, Ministers underscored the importance of this initiative both commercially and systemically for the WTO and affirmed their commitment to a high standard outcome, with the participation of as many WTO members as possible.

“Ministers welcomed the good progress achieved over the first year of negotiations, including the range of proposals received, the diversity and growing number of participants, and the strong levels of engagement in negotiating rounds.

“Ministers emphasized the need to keep working hard to ensure substantial progress by MC12 and agreed to develop a consolidated negotiating text by MC12 and a pathway for the future conclusion of the negotiations.

“The Philippines also announced it would join the JSI, bringing the number of signatories to 83, representing over 90% of global trade.

“Since our last report at the December HODS/TNC, we have held an organisational meeting, on 16 December, that set a work plan leading up to MC12.

“We also convened a negotiating round from 11-14 February, which covered electronic transactions, non-discrimination and liability, consumer protection, transparency, domestic regulation, cooperation and telecommunications. These negotiations were structured around revised streamlined texts drawn from proposals made by Members, and made further progress on streamlining text.

“Two more rounds are scheduled before MC12: 17-20 March and 28 April-1 May.

“We look forward to a continuation of the constructive engagement and momentum demonstrated in February with the aim of developing a consolidated negotiating text by MC12.

“The co-convenors continue to ensure this JSI is transparent and inclusive: meetings are open to all WTO Members; and all proposals and reports are available on the WTO’s web portal.”

The JSI group had hoped to have a consolidated draft text by the 12th Ministerial Conference in June this year before the Ministerial Conference was cancelled because of the pandemic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down progress for a few months, the joint convenors (Australia, Japan and Singapore) remain confident that a draft agreement can be achieved with a roadmap for completion by the 2021 Ministerial. Most documents generated by the JSI group are not publicly available. However, the titles of documents are available publicly. As of August 21, 70 documents are listed as having been submitted by Members on the JSI on electronic commerce. The most recent document is dated August 19 and is titled a “Stocktake text” (INF/ECOM/57). A July 23 document is titled “Facilitator’s note – Services Market Access — List of Proponents’ sectors of interest”).

Statements by the eight candidates seeking to become the next WTO Director-General

What follows are excerpts from candidates’ prepared statements to the General Council, my notes of their responses to questions at their press conferences following meeting with the General Council, and my notes on their comments at webinars hosted by the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) and the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico)

In his prepared statement to the General Council on July 15, Dr. Seade listed completion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations as an issue to be resolved in the first 100 days of his becoming Director-General. The Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on E-commerce was one of a number of JSIs announced at the 11th Ministerial Confernce in Buenos Aires in 2017. Dr. Seade included all JSIs as areas where he would be expecting concrete results by June 2021.

“1. Within the first hundred days: I will work closely with
members in seeking to i. reach agreement on fisheries subsidies.” (Google translation from French).

“2. Second horizon, towards our MC12 conference, and aware of the fact that its date is not yet fixed, it is important that we look for concrete results
by June 2.021, both in joint initiatives and in issues that aim to give us a more transparent and effective WTO.” (Google translation from French).

At his press conference on July 15 after his meeting with the General Council, Dr. Seade was not asked any questions about the fisheries subsidies negotiations or about the e-commerce JSI.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Seade on July 7. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-seade/. During the webinar, Dr. Seade was not asked specifically about either the fisheries subsidies negotiations or about the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce. However, he was asked a question on whether, if he was selected as the next Director-General, he would encourage plurilateral negotiations. All of the JSIs are plurilateral negotiations open to any Member who wishes to join. Below are my notes on the question asked and Dr. Seade’s response on plurilaterals.

Q: On the role of plurilaterals in the WTO, would you encourage their use if you are selected as the next Director-eneral?

A:  On plurilaterals, Dr. Seade tries to take a pragmatic and historic approach.  Looking at the history of the multilateral trading system, the Tokyo Round created a host of plurilaterals which were powerful to create rules that were accepted by many of the most important countries on a range of subjects (AD, Subsidies) — the so-called Tokyo Round Codes.  It was a great way to move the process of liberalization forward.  In Dr. Seade’s view, the great achievement in the Uruguay Round was to move to substantively universal rules (agriculture and textiles which had previously been outside of GATT rules were brought inside; the Tokyo Round Codes moved to Agreements applicable to all).  The Uruguay Round was possible because there were huge inducements for developing countries to accept services, TRIPs in exchange for textiles and agriculture liberalization.  However, the negotiating environment has changed. It is no longer possible to get liberalization through negotiations just betweenthe U.S. and the EU where the results are then accepted by others (e.g., agriculture). Now negotiations need to include China, India and others who need to be part and where large differences in objectives may make multilateral negotiations more difficult.  Therefore the WTO needs plurilaterals to permit forward movement.  However, the WTO and its Members need to work largely on the basis that any benefits from plurilaterals will be provided to all Members and that the agreement is open to any Member to join later if desired.  In Dr. Seade’s view, if the WTO doesn’t allow use of plurilaterals, progress at the WTO will stop.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala mentions both concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations and updating the WTO rules to include rules on e-commerce. She adds the need to bridge the digital divide so that any such rules will have broader application and broader input.

“The WTO appears paralysed at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st century issues such as e-commerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies. Issues of women and trade and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are important to ensure greater inclusion. Bridging the digital divide to enable Least Developed Countries and other developing countries to participate will be key.”

“My vision is also of a rejuvenated and strengthened WTO that will be confident to tackle effectively ongoing issues such as the fisheries negotiations. With political will, outstanding issues of subsidies that lead to overfishing and unsustainable fishing can be concluded.”

“A rejuvenated WTO must also take on fresh challenges, such as ensuring optimal complementarity between trade and the environment and ensuring that WTO rules best respond to the realities of e-commerce and the opportunities and challenges of the digital economy.”

“Should I be elected, I would work with Members to prioritize delivering a successful MC12 with good outcomes on fisheries, agriculture and other areas. I would also prioritize updating the rulebook * * *.”

During the press conference on July 15 after her meeting with the General Council, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was asked a question on what progress in negotiations was achievable by the next Ministerial Conference and was also asked a question on how she would work towards ensuring a successful outcome on e-commerce negotiations. My notes on her responses to those questions follow.

On the question of what is achievable by the next Ministerial in 2021 and whether it is best to go after issues one at a time or in a larger grouping, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala indicated that she hoped the WTO Membership would make a decision soon on who should be Director-General so whoever is selected has more time before the next Ministerial. But even if a decision is not made until November 2020, there are some areas that could be ready by the next Ministerial. For example, a fisheries subsidies agreement should be achievable. There was a lot of discussion in the General Council on trust and building trust to move negotiations along. Trust is obviously an important issue. So the WTO may need to sequence issues to build trust by achieving a win or two. Once there are some successes, it should be possible to handle more issues in parallel.

The question on what Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would do as Director-General to see that an agreement on e-commerce was pursued was answered by noting that there was extensive work being done plurilaterally by many Members as one of a number of joint statement initiatives. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala agrees that an agreement on e-commerce is very important, but she notes that there is a digital divide where many poorer countries don’t have the infrastructure to take advantage of e-commerce. The WTO, working with other multilateral organizations, needs to see that resources are put together to help countries address the digital divide. Once the digital divide is addressed, all Members should want to and be able to participate in the e-commerce negotiations, so that the agreement becomes a multilateral one.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 21. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/. During the webinar, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala made an opening statement in which she reviewed the need to generate some early wins for the WTO at the 12th Ministerial Conference including both fisheries subsidies and e-commerce. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was also asked speciically about e-commerce and digital trade and how to move those talks forward. Below are my notes on those portions of the webinar.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stated that the WTO is really at a critical moment, an existential crisis.  She believes that something needs to be done to give a lift to the organization.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would focus as Director-General on the next Ministerial Conference and what wins could be obtained at the Conference.  She believes that concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations with its issues of overcapacity and overfishing should be pursued and could be concluded even before the Ministerial Conference.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also believes that the WTO must update the rule book to cover 21st century issues.  As she has noted, the digital economy is driving the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and is of great importance to many Members.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that the WTO needs to develop rules for e-commerce as e-commerce is the future of much of trade. At the same time, the WTO must address the digital divide so participation and benefits are available to all.

Q: On e-commerce and digital trade, how do you see rules being developed? Should the rules be based on the historic principles of the WTO?

A:  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that ecommerce and digital trade are very important topics. The WTO must ensure two things. First, traditional WTO principles should apply (non-discrimination, etc.).  She believes that it would be important to get many more countries to join the talks. Stated differently, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes the WTO should always prefer a multilateral negotiation and agreement. However, sometimes plurilaterals are needed to make progress.  Second, the WTO working with other organizations needs to address the digital divide. In Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s view, the fact that many developing countries are not participating flows from the fact that they don’t have the infrastructure to engage in e-commerce to a significant extent and hence neither participate in the talks nor gain benefits.  This is the digital divide.  WTO is not a financial institution, so the WTO needs to team with other organizations to help developing countries overcome the digital divide which will permit these Members to then participate in the negotiations.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also believes that the level of commitments under an e-commerce agreement will need to vary based on the ability of Members to accept obligations and to contribute.

Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt)

Mr. Mamdouh’s prepared statement to the General Council on July 15 identified both fisheries subsidies and the various Joint Statement Initiatives, including e-commerce, as priorities for movement by the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12).

“For the immediate future, we need to set clear priorities. MC12 is around the corner and it needs to be a turning point in the direction of the WTO and take it on a different path towards ‘positive territory’. I believe we need to do two things: 1) agree on a reform agenda and 2) achieve concrete progress on issues currently under negotiation.

“On current negotiating subjects, fisheries subsidies come first as the one item expected to be concluded by the end of 2020. It is crucial for our future to have a successful conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations.

“There are also the Joint Statement Initiatives on e-commerce, domestic regulation in services, MSMEs and investment facilitation. These initiatives address pressing issues of importance to many Members and pause new challenges.”

During Mr. Mamdouh’s press conference after his meeting with the General Council, he was asked one question about the agenda for the twelfth Ministerial Conference which resulted in an answer that included pursuing completion of the fisheries subsidies agreement and work on the Joint Statement Initiatives. My notes on Mr. Mamdouh’s response is provided below.

Mr. Mamdouh was asked if there will be enough time to prepare for the next Ministerial to have a positive agenda/outcome. He answered that if the selection process concludes before November, there should be sufficient time. In his view, the next Ministerial needs to be a turning point for the WTO. At MC12, the WTO must have a clear agenda for reform. There is not currently a mainstream focus on reform; issues are being raised ad hoc. Second, the WTO needs to score successes – fisheries subsidies and progress on joint statement initiatives are the likely areas for success.

WITA had a webinar with Mr. Mamdouh on June 23. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-candidate-hamid-mamdouh/. During the webinar, Mr. Mamdouh was asked a question about e-commerce and was also asked his views on plurilaterals and whether he would support their use if he becomes the next Director-General. As all of the Joint Statement Initiatives involve plurilateral negotiations, the question applies to e-commerce along with the other JSIs. Below are my notes on the questions and Mr. Mamdouh’s responses.

Q: U.S. has raised various issues of importance to them. How do you see elements of a reform agenda getting U.S. support if U.S. concerns are not addressed or included in the agenda?

A: Mr. Mamdouh indicated that U.S. concerns were being examined at the WTO. He took e-commerce as an example. Looking at the e-commerce agenda at the WTO, Mr. Mamdouh is of the view that there needs to be discussions that haven’t taken place at the WTO in a very long time.  Trade issues today are of increased complexity where issues of increased trade liberalization are juxtaposed with regulatory interests. E-commerce/digital trade has a slew of legitimate regulatory issues where Members can have very different perspectives. Examples would include privacy policies, cyber security, localization among others.  In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, these regulatory policy issues are both legitimate and of different importance to different Members.  So the question arises as to how new rules deal with these diversities of Member needs while ensuring rules that respect different needs while ensuring actions by Members are the least trade restrictive  While the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement and Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement are examples of issues with similar types of competing regulatory needs, many of the new issues are as or more complex. These new complex areas are not seeing discussions to date between trade folks, regulators and lawyers to help clarify the needs, challenges and options that may be available to permit WTO progress on fashioning new rules. In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, WTO Members must do a much better job of discussing issues and clarifying them so the options can be taken back home and reviewed to permit Members to get into real negotiations.

Q: Plurilaterals can be defined as agreements by like minded countries on topics.  How do you view plurilaterals and would you support them if you were selected as the next Director-General?  Should most favored nation treatment be eliminated for plurilaterals, so the benefits of plurilateral liberalization only goes to those who are participating?

A:  In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, one needs to clarify what is meant by plurilaterals.  Are we talking about plurilateral processes or outcomes?  Mr. Mamdouh views that there are two types of plurilaterals that have been pursued over time. The first is a plurilateral process that produces plurilateral outcomes — that is where the Agreement applies only to the signatories to that agreement. These are like the agreements in Annex 4 to the WTO (civil aircraft, government procurement, dairy and bovine meat). While these can be pursued they are less likely as they require the consent of all Members.  There are also plurilateral negotiations that produce multilateral outcomes. That is, the resulting agreement provides benefits to all even though the agreement was among some of the Members.  These are quite normal and are clearly within the spirit of the WTO.  Practically, Members engaged in plurilaterals will want there to be a critical mass of Members engaged for these types of plurilateral agreements to move forward. Moreover, Mr. Mamdouh noted that there is no requirement that all Members agree to the launch of plurilateral negotiations. That is not a requirement of the WTO and should not be assumed.  On the question of whether plurilateral agreements will opt increasingly to limit benefits to members, Mr. Mamdouh believes that the concept of most favored nation treatment in plurilaterals will undergo a stress test in the coming years as there are issues re reciprocity.    

Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova)

On July 16, Amb. Ulianovschi was the first candidate to meet with the General Council. In his prepared statement when Amb. Ulianovschi got to what he thought the immediate priorities for the new Director-General should be, completing the fisheries subsidies negotiations and making progress on Joint Statement Initiatives were two of the priorities listed.

“In terms of immediate priorities for the future Director General of the WTO, the following should be considered (including in the preparation process for MC12):

“2. Build upon the progress achieved already on the fisheries subsidies negotiations and strongly support Members to achieve a negotiated text by MC12;

* * *

“4. Further encouraging and supporting discussions on new and existing Joint Initiatives, particularly: on Elecronic Commerce, Investment Facilitation for Development, Domestic Services Regulation, as well as the dialogs of the informal group on MSMES and SMEs and others.

“5. Promoting negotiations of new commercial disciplines and address issues of the digital environment and new areas of intellectual property.”

During Amb. Ulianovschi’s press conference after his meeting with the General Council, the last question he was asked had Amb. Ulianovschi point to the Joint Statement Initiatives (which include electronic commerce) as a sign Members could make progress on reform issues. Amb. Ulianovschi was not asked specifically about either fisheries subsidies or electronic commerce. My notes on the question asked and Amb. Ulianovschi’s answer are provided below.

Q: The last question asked was about getting the WTO out of crisis; in particular, what is the core factor causing the crisis and how would Mr. Ulianovschi address the factor if he was selected as Director-General.

A: Mr. Ulianovschi answered that this is an existential question for the WTO. The first priority, in his view, to get out of the crisis is for there to be trust among Members. The role of the Director-General is to enhance feelings of trust through confidence building steps. Many issues which have been unresolved for a long time have undermined trust. Joint initiative statement issues are advancing and give hope that the organization is relevant and can deliver. This is a good sign that there is a common purpose among the Members.

WITA held a webinar with Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi on August 26, 2020.  https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-tudor-ulianovschi/. During the webinar, Amb. Ulianovschi was asked two questions where his response included views on the fisheries subsidies negotiations and/or on e-commerce/digital trade. My notes on the questions asked and on Amb. Ulianovschi’s responses are provided below.

Q:  If you are the next Director-General, what would be your priorities for the 2021 Ministerial Conference and how would you define success?

A:  In Amb. Ulianovschi’s view, the next Ministerial must show some results.  He believes the top priority would be completing the ongoing negotiations on fisheries subsidies, which is important to fulfill U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14.6.  He believes that the Members are close to getting language agreed to.  Completing the fisheries subsidies agreement Is just the first step, but it is an important one.  He would also focus on ongoing Joint Statement Initiatives (JSI) such as on  digital trade/e-commerce.   JSIs are plurilateral negotiations as opposed to multilateral ones.  As seen by Members during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital trade is of growing importance.  A key question is how to help least developed countries get involved and get help building the infrastructure so such Members can participate.  Also Members will need to deal with a range of issues surround digital trade such as cybersecurity, privacy, etc.  Amb. Ulianovschi stated that a Ministerial declaration would be expected at the 2021 Ministerial on e-commerce.  He also noted that there are other JSIs as well that are being discussed.  He believes that at the next Ministerial Members should have a clear message of support for small, medium and micro enterprises.  Such enterprises are a huge issue for most Members.  Many of these businesses are being severely challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and many will likely go bankrupt.  WTO Members need to help identify how the WTO and other organizations can work with them (financial institutions and ICC). 

Q:  You say that business as usual isn’t viable anymore.  What has changed?  If plurilateral work is where we are headed,  do we need to rethink the most favored nation principle?

A:  Amb. Ulianovschi stated that when one looks at the WTO, one sees that there is a lack of trust which in turn has meant there is lack of forward movement on negotiations.  Thus, it is clear that  business as usual isn’t working.  But that recognition doesn’t mean that the organization starts from zero.  What is clear is that things need to change.  The WTO is not responding to 21st century issues which cannot continue if the organization is to maintain relevance.  On the issue of multilateral vs. plurilateral negotiations, the only multilateral negotiation that is proceeding is on fisheries subsidies.  As noted, Amb. Ulianovschi hopes that the fisheries subsidies negotiations will be completed by the next Ministerial in 2021.  Where trust is lacking, he belives Members need to seek progress from the bottom up – finding like-minded Members who are concerned about an issue and willing to negotiate rules on the issue.  Plurilaterals are going on (JSIs are an example).  This is a good sign as plurilaterals show that a number of members are concerned with a topic.  Any plurilateral negotiation must be done in a transparent and inclusive manner.  Based on his discussions with Members, Amb. Ulianovschi knows that there is a large support for keeping MFN applicable to benefits from plurilaterals.

H.E. Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea)

Minister Yoo in her prepared statement to the General Council identified both fisheries subsidies and the JSI on electronic commerce as priorities for the 12th Ministerial.

“MC12 will be a critical milestone of Members’ ability to deliver results and set the agenda for the future. The new Director-General must help make it a success in order to build trust in the WTO.

“A successful outcome on fisheries subsidies will demonstrate the credibility of the WTO and its ability to contribute to global objectives on sustainable development. It will also provide the world with the benefits for
trade and environmental sustainability. I will do everything I can to support these negotiations and bring them swiftly to a successful conclusion, for endorsement by Ministers at MC12.

“Electronic commerce is also an area in which we should work towards tangible outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of this issue. A comprehensive agreement by next summer may be ambitious, but I think we can take some concrete steps and lay out the path forward for post-MC12 work.”

During Minister Yoo’s press conference after her meeting with the General Council, she was asked questions on how she would restore trust if selected the next Director-General and how she would bring major Members onto issues being considered. Fisheries subsidies and e-commerce are mentioned in one or the other answers. My notes on the questions and answers provided are presented below.

Q: A question was asked as to how Minister Yoo would restore trust if selected as the next Director-General.

A: Minister Yoo noted her experience in negotiating trade deals with all level of countries around the world. She knows what it takes to negotiate and what it takes to bring negotiations to a close. She is confident that she can earn confidence from Members and achieve tangible outcomes. The key is to obtain even a small success at the MC12 (e.g., fisheries subsidies agreement by then) which would help build trust and convince the world that progress can happen at the WTO.

Q: What does it mean for the WTO to be relevant, and how would you bring on major members who may not agree with the issue being considered?

A: Minister Yoo stated that the WTO needs to revitalize its negotiating function and must be able to enforce its rules (by restoring the Appellate Body). Given 21st century realities, the WTO needs to update its rule book and to achieve agreement on issues that have real global effects such as the joint initiative efforts on e-commerce, MSMEs, investments, and other issues. That said, there are open issues from The Doha Development Agenda that are not moving because there are different views on how to move forward. In terms of how you bring members to the negotiating table, part of the answer is to obtain small successes to build trust and momentum.

WITA had a webinar with Minister Yoo on August 11.  https://www.wita.org/event-videos/candidate-h-e-yoo-myung-hee/. During the webinar, Minister Yoo was asked both about the e-commerce negotiations and about the ongoing fisheries subsidies negotiations. My notes on the questions and her responses are provided below.

Q: How important is it to move forward with a WTO reform agenda? In particular digital trade and e-commerce have become much more important to global trade during the pandemic.  How important is it for the WTO to address the lack of rules on digital trade and e-commerce?

A:  Minister Yoo indicated that the negotiations on e-commerce were important before the pandemic and are even more important now. Thus, it is critical to have successful negotiations.  WTO reform is very important generally.  All three pillars of the WTO — negotiations, dispute settlement and notifications and monitoring — need to be strengthened.  The WTO rule book was largely created 25 years ago.  Minister Yoo noted that the world didn’t have the smart phone or even much e-commerce back then.  So the existing WTO rules are limited in their ability to deal with current commercial reality.  It is important that the WTO achieve an agreement on e-commerce to show that the WTO can adapt to 21st century needs.  That said, Minister Yoo cautioned that Members have different views on various aspects of e-commerce.  She believes there are some low hanging fruit — e-signature and trade facilitation issues — that Members could be able to agree on relatively quickly.   However, Minister Yoo also noted that there are difficult issues in e-commerce tied to other government policy objectives — e.g., data transfer, localization — that may take longer to reach agreement on.  In tackling the more difficult set of issues, WTO Members need to look to see if the proposed rule serves a legitimate policy objective of Members.  If yes, then Members need to see if there is a way to achieve the objective in the least trade restrictive manner while facilitating e-commerce.  Considering the full set of issues that are present in the e-commerce talks, it may be too ambitious to achieve an agreement by the 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021.  Hopefully, WTO Members engaged in the talks can achieve a consolidated text by the Ministerial.  And then hopefully Members could agree on a path forward.  Minister Yoo is optimistic that Members will be able to come up with an ambitious agreement.

Q: Fisheries subsidies negotiations were hopefully going to conclude by this summer before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed negotiations. What are your thoughts on how talks can be brought to a successful conclusion?

A:  Minister Yoo stated that the fisheries subsidies negotiations are important to conclude to show the continued relevance of the WTO. The fisheries subsidies negotiations are the only multilateral talks at the WTO that are active (most others are plurilateral).  Achieving agreement on fisheries subsidies can also contribute to the UN’s sustainable development goals.  For both reasons, concluding the negotiations is very important.  Minister Yoo believes that Members should focus their energies on completing the negotiations by the end of this year so that the agreement can be endorsed by Ministers at the next Ministerial Conference in 2021.  For the next Director-General, the most urgent agenda item is to help facilitate the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies talks by the end of this year or at the very latest by the next Ministerial Conference in 2021.

H.E. Amina C. Mohamed (Kenya)

Minister Mohamed was the last candidate to appear before the General Council on July 16. Minister Mohamed did not address specifically either fisheries subsidies or the Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce in her prepared statement to the General Council.

Similarly, during Minister Mohamed’s press conference after her meeting with the General Council, she was not asked a question dealing specifically with fisheries subsidies or the Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce, nor did she include mention of either in answer to any of the questions asked.

WITA had a webinar with H.E. Mohamed on August 6. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/ambassador-amina-mohamed/. During the webinar, Minister Mohamed referenced digital trade in her opening comments and was asked a question about plurilateral negotiations. As noted before all of the Joint Statement Initiatives (including e-commerce) are plurilateral negotiations . My notes on her comments on these issues are provided below.

Opening statement:  Once the world recovers from the pandemic, the WTO will still face challenges of renewal and updating the rules to address global issues such as climate change, the digital revolution, and sustainable development.

Q: on developing new rules at the WTO, it has proven difficult to get agreement among all Members.  This has led to many Members turning to plurilaterals to achieve progress.  What are your views on plurilaterals?  Should MFN treatment of benefits be reconsidered where plurilateral agreements are the basis for liberalization or new rules?

A:  Minister Mohamed noted that plurilateral agreements are not new in the WTO; there were plurilateral agreements in the GATT.  She believes that plurilateral agreements will continue to be pursued and be part of the trading system.  Indeed, Minister Mohamed stated that the completion and/or start of plurilateral negotiations was a “good” that came out of the Nairobi and the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conferences in 2015 and 2017 respectively.  Countries that want to take on additional obligations will come together to negotiate new obligations for themselves.  In this way, plurilaterals complement the multilateral system.  Minister Mohamed stated that once there is a plurilateral agreement, it is important to share the benefits on an MFN basis if you want broad acceptance by Members.  Minister Mohamed had been the chair of the Nairobi Ministerial at which an update to the Information Technology Agreement (ITA2) was agreed to. Before the Ministerial, Minister Mohamed had had to travel to a number of capitals to get agreement to apply benefits on an MFN basis. At the end, the benefits of ITA2 are shared on an MFN basis and the agreement is open to all Members who want to join at a later date.  This led to unanimous acceptance of the ITA2 at Nairobi in 2015.  Minister Mohamed believes that it is important for ongoing plurilateral negotiations to ensure that the benefits are applied on MFN basis and that the agreement is open to all Members.

H.E. Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia)

Minister Al-Tuwaijri was the first candidate to meet with the General Council on July 17. In his prepared statement, Minister Al-Tuwaijri identifies fisheries subsidies and e-commerce as two early deliverables for the WTO at the 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021.

“And finally, concerning the first question on what opportunities and solutions will emerge from current challenges, the existing delay in convening Ministers for the 12th Ministerial Conference may be a blessing in disguise. If we move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity of having an additional year to prepare, we could find and deliver solutions at MC12, particularly on fishery subsidies and electronic commerce and digital trade, which would demonstrate that the WTO can address issues in the public good – that would deliver on your goal of ‘optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development’ – while recognizing the contribution of e-commerce to economic growth in all markets, which has been emphatically affirmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although concluding the fishery subsidies negotiations would be a welcome sign that WTO Members can agree on something, we should not exaggerate the impression that this small step will make on our constituents. We need to aim higher, and the DG must work overtime to support a more complete agenda for the future of the WTO by MC12.”

During Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s press conference after meeting with the General Council, one question asked about WTO reform resulted in an answer by the Minister which provided both fisheries subsidies and e-commerce as issues where results by the 12th Ministerial Conference were possible. My notes on the question and Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s answer are provided below.

On the issue of WTO reform, Minister AlTuwaijri recognized that the WTO is a member driven organization. Second, the Director-General has a function to facilitate and to assess, but there is also room to improve the Director-General’s role. For example, the next ministerial (MC12) has been delayed til 2021. The delay provides an opportunity to improve the discussion at MC 12 and the outcomes that are possible. Bringing management and leadership skills to the Director-General position will permit setting goals, metrics for measuring progress in achieving those goals and providing a feedback loop on gaps that need to be addressed. Certain current issues should be achievable, such as fisheries subsidies and e-commerce. In the Minister’s view, COVID-19 and post-pandemic recovery provide the WTO an opportunity to address core needs of Members by doing a performance assessment. Where are the gaps in performance? Why did those gaps develop? How should the WTO proceed to eliminate the gaps? From his business and government experience, Minister Al-Tuwaijri knows that this type of transformation of the WTO to a more goal-oriented organization is possible.

WITA held a webinar with Minister Al-Tuwaijri on August 5, https://www.wita.org/event-videos/director-general-candidate-he-mohammed-al-tuwaijri/. During the webinar, Minister Al-Tuwaijri was asked his views on plurilateral agreements, which include the Joint Statement Initiatives such as the one on e-commerce. My notes on the question and Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s response follows.

Q: Do you see plurilateral negotiations as a good alternative to the lack of progress in multilateral talkes?

A:  Minister Al-Tuwaijri responded that his short answer would be Yes.  Members need to be able to move on where multilateral talks are blocked or not occurring.  So in Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s view plurilateral negotiations and agreements are part of the answer.  Because plurilateral agreements have existed for some time, Minister Al-Tuwaijri is interested in why some Members don’t join the agreement over time if the agreement is open to all and provides MFN benefits.  The answer to the “why” question is important if plurilaterals are to be more effective and lead to the agreements becoming multilateral over time.

The Rt Hon Dr. Liam Fox MP (United Kingdom)

Dr. Fox was the last candidate to appear before the General Council. His prepared statement has a section which reviews what Dr. Fox considers one of the new Director-General’s first tasks, delivering a successful 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021. Among the issues to be addressed are completion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations and progress on the Joint Statement Initiatives, including on e-commerce.

“Now, one of the first tasks for a new DG will be to deliver a successful 12th Ministerial Conference. The contents are, of course, for the members to agree but it is essential that the DG works with members to produce ideas and an agenda that, yes, excites us here at the WTO but is also seen as relevant outside. It must focus on outcomes, not process, helping the real businesses – large, medium, small and micro – upon which real prosperity depends.

“So what are some of our specific challenges?

“Well, despite remaining gaps, members are perhaps closer than they have been in the past to agreeing new rules to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies, and we must push for an outcome as soon as possible to meet the SDG goal set by Leaders. But, this is not just about fish, but about showing that the WTO can take steps on sustainability more generally – an area where members are rightly bringing forward other ideas, and where the public attach great importance.

“I know many members are also keen to make progress on Joint Initiatives on e-commerce, services, MSMEs and investment – these will be an important part of the discussions in the coming months.”

During Dr. Fox’s press conference after his July 17th meeting with the General Council he was asked one question on the types of reform needed. In his answer Dr. Fox mentioned fisheries subsidies as one topic. My notes on the question and his answer are provided below.

The last question inquired into what reform is needed. Dr. Fox articulated that reform should be viewed in three buckets. The first is conceptual reform. By this he means, Members recommitting to the basic principles of the WTO (most favoured nation, national treatment and transparency of commitments). He believes this is what MC 12 needs to focus on. The second is organizational reform. By this Dr. Fox means what does the team look like, the Director-General being first among equals; selecting Secretariat staff that are the most talented and challenging group. The third is policy reform. By that, Dr. Fox means what issues will be addressed — legacy issues and issues to update organization such as fisheries subsidies; resolution of the Appellate Body impasse. Dr. Fox concluded by saying that the Director-General position is a job for a politician and not for a technocrat at this time.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Fox on July 30, 2020. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-dr-liam-fox/. During the webinar, Dr. Fox referenced each of the fisheries subsidies negotiations and updating the rules to cover e-commerce briefly. My notes on his comments are provided below.

Dr. Fox opined that the fisheries subsidies negotiations and around that the broader question of sustainability are issues which are not being addressed in the best way by the WTO Members.  The WTO and its Members don’t seem interested in using NGOs and young people who have a deep interest in the oceans by including them in the communication process so that there is better understanding that what the WTO is concerned about are issues of interest to the people of the world.  In Dr. Fox’s view, there is a disconnect between what the WTO is doing and what the general public is concerned about that has undermined the sense of joint endeavor that was important in the Uruguay Round.

Dr. Fox reviewed the importance of taking forward issues on e-commerce and trade in services. For Dr. Fox, the key question is how does the WTO bring its rule book up to date particularly on the changes in technology. Once the rule book is brought up to date, then the key is ensuring that all Members comply with the rules.

Conclusion

All eight of the candidates to become the next Director-General of the WTO view the completion of the fisheries subsidies as an important early objective and deliverable to demonstrate the WTO’s continued relevance. An agreement on fisheries subsidies would also help support the UN’s sustainable development goals.

All candidates also understand that there is an urgent need to update the WTO’s rule book with the most obvious example being the lack of agreed rules on electronic commerce and digital trade. All recognize that the role of digital trade has been critical to help countries during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be a critical aspect of global trade in goods and services going forward. The Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce announced at the 2017 Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference currently has more than 80 WTO Members participating in the negotiations. Those Members account for more than 90% of global e-commerce. Reports from the co-convenors indicate the likelihood that there will be at least a consolidated text available by the next Ministerial Conference to be held in 2021. However, because the JSI is a plurilateral negotiation and not a multilateral one, it is envisioned that benefits will be available on an MFN basis (i.e., to all Members of the WTO whether part of the negotiations or not) and that the agreement will be open to all Members to join as desired.

Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25

In my last post, I reviewed the fact that a draft consolidated text on fisheries subsidies had been pulled together by the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules (fisheries subsidies) and distributed to members at a meeting on June 25. See Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/

While the document (RD/TN/RL/126) was released as a “room document” and hence not publicly available, a copy of the draft consolidated text was published on June 26 by Washington Trade Daily (pages 2-7 of its June 26th edition). As the Washington Trade Daily article reviews, the Chair has made specific (as is often done on these types of texts but particularly on this draft), nothing is viewed as agreed to regardless of whether text is bracketed or not.

The draft consolidated text has ten articles, although the last three are placeholder titles only awaiting further work. The articles are:

  1. Scope;
  2. Definitions;
  3. Prohibition on subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (“IUU fishing”);
  4. Prohibition on subsidies concerning overfished stocks;
  5. Prohibition on subsidies concerning overcapacity and overfishing;
  6. Specific provisions for LDC members;
  7. Technical assistance and capacity building;
  8. Notification, transparency and/or surveillance;
  9. Institutional arrangements;
  10. Dispute settlement.

The negotiations have always been limited to marine wild capture fishing and don’t cover aquaculture. Article 1 is consistent with the intended reach of any agreement.

Article 2, definitions, has just three — “fishing”, “fishing related activities” and “vessel”.

Prohibiting subsidies on IUU fishing is a critical part of the UN sustainable development goal 14.6. Article 3 lays out the prohibition and how the actions of a fishing vessel are determined to be “illegal, unreported or unregulated”. Various Members (coastal, flag State, port State, subsidizing) or regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements (Art. 3.2) can make such findings “based on positive evidence; follow fair, transparent , and non-discriminatory procedures” (Art. 3.3).

Articles 4 and 5 address the other core objective of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6, prohibiting subsidies on overfished stocks, overcapacity and overfishing. Both articles contain exceptions or special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (LDCs). Depending on whether advanced developing countries waive such provisions, there will be problems for some Members (including the U.S.) in having such exceptions or S&D provisions included in the text. Specifically, LDCs are exempted from the prohibitions of Art. 5.1 “for fishing or fishing related activities at sea” (Art. 5.6(a)) and developing countries “for fishing or fishing related activities at sea within their territorial sea” (Art. 5.6(b)). The draft consolidated text attempts to cover some developing and LDC countries despite the above two exceptions where certain criteria are met (Art. 5.6(c)). It is assumed that Korea, Singapore and Brazil consistent with their prior statements that they would forego special and differential treatment in future agreements would not be eligible for the exceptions or S&D contained in the draft agreement if the final agreement contains such provisions.

There may also be concerns for some Members with what is and isn’t included within the terms capital costs (Art. 5.1.2.(a)) and operating costs (Art. 5.1.2.(b)) as some may feel the terms cover too much while others may view the terms as permitting significant subsidization to continue.

Art. 5.2 lays out some limitations on subsidies for fishing and fishing related activities beyond a Member’s jurisdiction and will also likely be the subject of close scrutiny as being either too limited or too broad depending on Member views.

Article 6 has two subparts, one giving LDCs a transition period once a country is no longer an LDC and the other having Members “exercise due restraint in raising matters involving an LDC Member”.

Article 7 calls on developed country Members and such developing country Members who indicate being in a position to do so to “provide targeted technical assistance and capacity building assistance” to developing countries and LDCs.

As noted, Articles 8-10 have not been fleshed out in the draft consolidated text.

The next meeting on fisheries subsidies is the July 21st open-ended informal meeting of the negotiating group. The efforts of the Chair and his facilitators to explore options on various key issues and to develop this draft consolidated text are a welcome step in trying to get the fisheries negotiations back on track and over the finish line consistent with Ministers’ decision from the 11th Ministerial Conference and the deadline within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. If an agreement is to be reached before the end of the year, there is an urgent need for Members to step forward and find agreed text. Let’s hope for progress next month.

Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25

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:

“FISHERIES SUBSIDIES

“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

TNRLW232-03

JobsRL6

Conclusion

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.