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
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.”
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.