Iceland

Will there be another extension of the WTO Moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce — expanding global trade or creating additional barriers

WTO Members have engaged for years in debate over the wisdom of extending the temporary moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce. Each Ministerial Conference has resulted in Members agreeing to an extension of the moratorium until the next Ministerial Conference along with an extension of a moratorium on non-violation TRIPs disputes. While Members have agreed to a draft extension of the moratorium on non-violation TRIPs disputes for the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial, there is no agreement as yet on extending the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce. See WTO News Release, Members agree on recommendation to extend moratorium on IP “non-violation” cases, 5 November 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/trip_05nov21a_e.htm; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, India, South Africa question WTO e-commerce moratorium ahead of MC12, November 9, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/india-south-africa-question-wto-e-commerce-moratorium-ahead-mc12.

In recent years, India and South Africa have cited to information from UNCTAD to support their concern that the moratorium is costing developing countries tax revenues as well as their concern that the moratorium is limited to transmission and not content and doesn’t apply to services. See WORK PROGRAMME ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE, THE MORATORIUM ON CUSTOMS DUTIES ON ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS: NEED FOR CLARITY ON ITS SCOPE AND IMPACT, 8 November 2021, WT/GC/W/833 (communication from India and South Africa); WORK PROGRAMME ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE, THE E-COMMERCE MORATORIUM: SCOPE AND IMPACT, Communication from India and South Africa, 11 March 2020, WT/GC/W/798; UNCTAD, RISING PRODUCT DIGITALISATION AND LOSING TRADE COMPETITIVENESS, 2017, https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/gdsecidc2017d3_en.pdf; UNCTAD Research Paper No. 29, UNCTAD/SER.RP/2019/1, Rashmi Banga, Growing Trade in Electronic Transmissions: Implications for the South, February 2019, https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ser-rp-2019d1_en.pdf.

Some of the concerns expressed by India and South Africa and their rebuttal of OECD and other papers which look at upside benefits from the moratorium are captured in the following excerpt from the recent submission (WT/GC?W/833, pages 2-3).

2.2 Tariff Revenue Loss

“2.4. In our previous submission, WT/GC/W/798, we highlighted that based on the identification of a small number of digitizable goods in five areas, namely, printed matter, music and video downloads, software and video games, UNCTAD estimated a loss in tariff revenue of more than US$10 billion per annum globally because of the moratorium, 95% of which is borne by
developing countries.

“2.5. These submissions attempt to make the revenue foregone on account of the e-commerce moratorium seem insignificant by showcasing this revenue loss in terms of its share in customs revenue and total government revenue. However, even compared in this manner, it is evident that the percentage of government revenue lost for developing countries is higher than that for the
developed countries. The percentage of customs revenue lost for developing countries is 4.35% while that for the developed countries is a mere 0.24%. It is evident that the cost of the moratorium is almost completely borne by the developing countries for extending duty free quota free market access, largely for the developed countries.

“2.6. These submissions conclude that the amount of physical trade replaced by 3D printing is expected to be limited. UNCTAD (2019) provides a deeper analysis on the status of 3D printing though. It indicates that while 3D printing is currently at a nascent stage in developing countries, its market has grown annually by 22% in the period 2014-2018 and it is estimated that if investment
in 3D printing is doubled, it could potentially replace almost 40% of cross-border physical global trade by 20407. Such a growth is expected to significantly increase the potential tariff revenue loss.

2.3 Impact on SMEs and Digital Industrialization

“2.7. Interestingly, when assessing the total trade of electronic transmissions, these submissions consider only digitizable goods and conclude that these remain modest but when estimating the impact of the moratorium on exports, especially of SMEs, these submissions considers the extended scope of the moratorium by including services8 and find the impact to be huge. Defining the scope of the moratorium is therefore important in order to estimate its impact.

“2.8. These submissions state that the use of 3D printing is growing slowly since the opportunities for mass production and economies of scale are limited and the inputs, materials and time required for 3D printing further constrain its use for manufacturing complex items. In this context, it is highlighted that with recent technological advances, namely high-speed sintering, mass production is becoming possible with 3D printers, where mass-producing up to 100,000 (smaller) components
in a day will be possible at a speed which is 100 times faster9. According to D’Aveni (2015)10, the advent of additive manufacturing in the US hearing aid industry meant that, in less than 500 days, 100% of the industry was transformed and not one company stuck to the traditional mode of manufacturing.

“2.9. These submissions do not reflect the impact that new technologies such as 3D printing can have on domestic industries especially MSMEs in developing countries. As outlined before, while 3D printing is currently at a nascent stage in developing countries, its market is expected to grow at a rapid pace. The most affected sectors could include sectors such as textiles and clothing, footwear, auto-components, toys, mechanical appliances, and hand tools, etc. which generate large scale employment for low skilled workers and are sectors in which most MSMEs operate. This could have a catastrophic effect on the ability of developing countries to protect their nascent domestic industries including MSMEs11.

“2.10. If, ‘customs duties on electronic transmissions’ cover not only digitised and digitizable goods but also digitally transmitted services, as asserted by a couple of institutions recently, then the negative impact of continuing with the moratorium on developing countries would be even greater. Effectively, this implies that the economy of the future (the digital economy) is totally liberalised. History has shown that trade policies are integral to successful economies’ development trajectory and are critical in advancing industrial policy.

“7 UNCTAD Research Paper No 47 (2020).
“8 UNCTAD Research Paper No 58 (2021).
“9 Ibid.
“10 Richard D’Aveni, ‘The 3-D Printing Revolution’ (2015) Harvard Business Review
https://hbr.org/2015/05/the-3-d-printing-revolution accessed 1 June 2021.
“11 UNCTAD Research Paper No 58 (2021).”

There are many WTO Members who support the continuation of the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce, and there have been studies by the OECD taking a position opposite that of UNCTAD. See, e.g., WORK PROGRAMME ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE BROADENING AND DEEPENING THE DISCUSSIONS ON THE MORATORIUM ON IMPOSING CUSTOMS DUTIES ON ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS, Communication from Australia; Canada; Chile; Colombia; Hong Kong, China;
Iceland; Republic of Korea; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; Thailand and Uruguay, 29 June 2020, WT/GC/W/799/Rev.1; Andrenelli, A. and J. López González (2019-11-13), “Electronic transmissions and international trade – shedding new light on the moratorium debate”, OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 233, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/57b50a4b-en. An excerpt from the submission of various WTO Members in WT/GC/W/799/Rev.1 is presented below characterizing some of the OECD analysis (pages 2-3).

“3 AN INSIGHTFUL WELFARE ANALYSIS OF ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSIONS

“3.1. Members have been referring to many different estimates in past discussions on this matter, which did not take into consideration the benefits associated with relevant reductions of trade costs, potential gains in productivity and increased consumer welfare. The welfare analysis in the study provides a clear illustration of what is induced by the absence of duties on electronic transmissions in terms of both revenue loss and the welfare surplus for consumers. Taking into consideration consumer welfare would bring depth to the discussion and could help move them forward.

“3.2. The welfare analysis outlines that the reduction in production and transportation costs associated with digital deliveries, as well as the removal of the tariff, can lead to a reduction in price. In consequence, the increase in demand leads to a rise in imports and an increase in consumer surplus, part of which is associated with redistribution from the domestic producer and part of which is from government revenue to the consumer. The study is unambiguous: the overall impact to the economy is ‘positive and large’.

“3.3. The study finds that the imposition of equivalent duties on electronic transmissions could negate those positive effects by increasing the price of the digital delivery, which shifts some of the consumer welfare back to the domestic producers and the government. Governments and producers would recover some of the revenue foregone but the amount recovered would depend on the elasticity of demand. The study also highlights that this would occur at the expense of consumer surplus. The positive welfare impact would decrease as the price of the digital product increases. Consequently, by introducing equivalent duties on electronic transmissions, governments would create a “deadweight loss” to the economy. The overall benefits associated with digitization
(i.e. lower trade costs) would be reduced and weaker economies would miss an opportunity to overcome their trade cost disadvantages.

“4 THE APPLICATION OF INTERNAL NON-DISCRIMINATORY TAXES AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO TARIFFS

“4.1. The study not only provides important elements regarding who bears the burden of tariffs, but also regarding the potential alternative sources of government revenue which would be better suited to the digital economy. The study notes that tariffs increase the price of a product to the domestic consumer. The extent to which the domestic price increases is dependent on the tariff pass-through, which ranges from full pass-through to none. If there is no pass-through, then the foreign company fully absorbs the tariff through reduced revenue. If there is full pass-through, then the domestic price increases in proportion to the tariff. Recent work quoted by the study notes that quasi complete-pass tends to be the most common – that is, foreign companies fully pass-on the price increase to domestic consumers. Moreover, recent work conveyed in the study has also demonstrated that tariff increases, in the medium-term, negatively affect domestic output and productivity, employment and lead to higher inequality and real exchange rate appreciation.

“4.2. The study highlights other means for governments to generate revenue. The use of consumption taxes, such as value added taxes (VAT) or goods and services taxes (GST) could represent a better alternative. Examples of VAT/GST applied to digital services and intangibles are provided and point out that internal non-discriminatory taxes provide a broader tax base, and thus more stable. According to the study, evidence indicates developing countries that adopt indirect taxes such as VAT experience 40 to 50% less tax revenue instability than countries that do not use indirect taxes. The OECD study suggests that consumption taxes are a feasible alternative to customs duties for generating revenue.

“4.3. In this respect, it should be noted that the OECD International VAT/GST Guidelines have been adopted by the G20 leaders and endorsed by more than 100 jurisdictions and organisations. Furthermore, the OECD has produced a report on best practices to implement international VAT/GST collection schemes.2

“2 Mechanisms for the Effective Collection of VAT/GST, OECD, 2017 http://www.oecd.org/tax/consumption/mechanisms-for-the-effective-collection-of-vat-gst.htm.”

A recent report by Prof. Simon J. Evenett

On November 12, 2021, Prof. Simon Evenett (founder of the St. Gallen Endowment for Prosperity Through Trade) released a paper looking at the question, “Is the WTO Moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce depriving developing countries of much needed revenue?”. The abstract for the paper states –

Abstract  This note vitiates assertions by UNCTAD staff that developing countries have lost significant government revenues as products previously delivered physically are supplied digitally. Taking for the sake of argument UNCTAD’s revenue loss estimates, this note shows that they represent small shares of tax revenues from sources other than customs duties. Forgone revenues would have financed less than 5 days of government spending in the Least Developed Countries and Sub-Saharan African nations. Moreover, domestic tax takes needed only to grow marginally faster to offset UNCTAD’s estimates of forgone customs duties. Low per-capita income status is not a barrier to successful national tax reform, calling in question the relevance of public finance objections to participation in multilateral trade initiatives to integrate economies.”

 The paper from Prof. Evenett is embedded below.

S.-Evenett_-WTO-Moratorium-12-Nov-2021_-finalised

Conclusion

There are obviously large differences in view on the costs and benefits of a moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce between India and South Africa on the one hand (and others supporting their view) and the group of WTO Members supporting the continuation of the moratorium.

A problem with the UNCTAD studies and papers is the definition of developing countries used. As is clear from the 2017 UNCTAD report, the largest cross border e-commerce sales for any country by far is China with 40% of such sales in 2015 (UNCTAD, Rising Product Digitalisation and Losing Trade Competitiveness, 2017 at 12) and largest customs revenue loss from the moratorium (id at 16). China should not be viewed as a developing country as reviewed in a recent post. See November 15, 2021:  The folly of self-selection as a developing country at the WTO, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/15/the-folly-of-self-selection-as-a-developing-country-at-the-wto/. Moreover, China is not understood to be opposing the continuation of the moratorium.

The UNCTAD report also lists as developing countries a number which clearly aren’t classified as such or that shouldn’t be, including — Saudi Arabia, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Romania, Russian Federation, Iceland, Bulgaria, Mexico, Norway, Thailand, Turkey, Portugal (see id, Table 2, Net Exports of Developing Countries of ET Products, pages 13-14; November 15, 2021:  The folly of self-selection as a developing country at the WTO, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/15/the-folly-of-self-selection-as-a-developing-country-at-the-wto/).

While WTO Members should be concerned about the digital divide that exists for some Members, the answer to addressing the divide is not to erect barriers to e-commerce. Rather Members should focus on technical assistance and other actions to help least developed countries and some developing countries who are behind develop the infrastructure and technical skills to actively participate in e-commerce.

Extending the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce is one more hurdle in front of WTO Members as they get ready for the 12th Ministerial Conference which starts in 12 days.

2021 – how quickly will COVID-19 vaccines bring the pandemic under control?

News accounts report many countries starting to receive at least some doses of vaccines. In the United States, two vaccines have received emergency use authorization (“EUA”)(the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines). The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has received approval (emergency use or other) in a number of countries (EU, Canada, United Kingdom, Bahrain) and was the first vaccine to receive an EUA from the World Health Organization. See WHO press release, WHO issues its first emergency use validation for a COVID-19 vaccine and emphasizes need for equitable global access, December 31, 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/31-12-2020-who-issues-its-first-emergency-use-validation-for-a-covid-19-vaccine-and-emphasizes-need-for-equitable-global-access. As the WHO press releases indicates, “The WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL) opens the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine. It also enables UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need.”

AstraZeneca will likely seek emergency use authorization in the United States in January and Johnson & Johnson in February. AstraZeneca has received an emergency use authorization in the United Kingdom. It has also been given EUA by India (along with a vaccine from Bharat Biotech). See New York Times, India Approves Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine and 1 other, January 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/world/asia/india-covid-19-vaccine.html.

A recent Financial Times article includes a graph showing the number of citizens in various countries who have received a first vaccination shot. See Financial Times, European leaders under pressure to speed up mass vaccination, January 1, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/c45e5d1c-a9ea-4838-824c-413236190e7e. The countries shown as having started vaccinations include China, the U.S., the U.K., Kuwait, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Russia, Argentina, Iceland, Bahrain, Oman, Israel, and fourteen of the 27 members of the EU).

Similarly an article from CGTN on January 1, 2021 shows a number of countries who are buying COVID-19 vaccines from China including Hungary and a number of others while vaccines from China are in stage 3 trials in a number of countries. CGTN, 1 January 2021, Hungary to focus on EU, Chinese coronavirus vaccine purchases, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-01-01/Hungary-to-focus-on-EU-Chinese-coronavirus-vaccine-purchases-WHm11NYjni/index.html. “By the end of 2020, UAE became the first country to roll out a Chinese vaccine to the public. Pakistan also announced on Thursday that they will purchase 1.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from China’s Sinopharm after China officially approved the vaccine for general public use. Sinovac’s CoronaVac shot, another candidate vaccine in China, has been signed up for purchase deals with Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, Chile, and Singapore. The company is also in supply talks with Malaysia and the Philippines.”

So the good news at the beginning of 2021 is that effective vaccines are starting to be distributed. Many others are in late stages of trials, giving hope to a significant number of vaccines approved for use in the coming months. The WHO’s list of vaccines in development and their status can be found on the WHO website at this cite. https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/draft-landscape-of-covid-19-candidate-vaccines. How quickly approved vaccines can be produced, distributed and vaccinations given globally will determine when the pandemic will be brought under control. There are many challenges that the world faces in getting to the hoped for situation of a pandemic that is in the past.

For example, even in developed countries, governments are finding that there are significant hurdles in getting production volumes up to promised levels, and much greater challenges in going from production to distribution to vaccinations. In the United States, the Trump Administration had aimed at having 20 million vaccinations accomplished by the end of 2020. Only 13.071 million doses were distributed by the end of the year according to the US CDC and only 4.2 million vaccinations (first shot of two shots) occurred. See Center for Disease Prevention and Control, COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations (viewed Jan. 3, 2021). President-elect Biden is talking about an aggressive program to get 100 million vaccinations (as the current vaccines require 2 shots, this means 50 million people) vaccinated in the first 100 days of his Administration (by the end of April). To achieve this objective will require cooperation from Congress in providing sufficient funding to build up the capabilities at the state and local levels. Health care infrastructure has been reduced over the last dozen years with a reduction of some 50,000 health care workers in the U.S. The huge COVID-19 case load in the United States and record hospitalizations also have health care operations across the United States overextended. So despite having sufficient vaccines on order from four companies where EUAs have been or will likely be granted in the near future to permit vaccination of all Americans by fall, there are enormous practical challenges to making the vaccinations happen in fact. And that is before the challenges of convincing portions of the population of the safety of the vaccines and the need for the vast majority of people to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Similar challenges exist in many other parts of the world as well. For example, in both the EU and India the roll out of vaccines is proceeding slower than desired. See, e.g., The Guardian, BioNTech criticises EU failure to order enough Covid vaccine, January 1, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/01/france-to-step-up-covid-jabs-after-claims-of-bowing-to-anti-vaxxers; Politico, France under pressure to speed up coronavirus vaccine rollout, January 3, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/france-under-pressure-to-speed-up-coronavirus-vaccine-rollout/; New York Times, India Approves Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine and 1 other, January 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/world/asia/india-covid-19-vaccine.html (“The Serum Institute, an Indian drug maker that struck a deal to produce the Oxford vaccine even before its effectiveness had been proven, has managed to make only about one-tenth of the 400 million doses it had committed to manufacturing before the end of the year.”).

The WHO/GAVI/CEPI effort to get vaccines to the world on a equitable basis has much of its vaccine commitments in products still in the testing stage although roughly one billion doses can be available for a vaccine currently approved on an emergency use basis in the U.K. and India (the AstraZeneca vaccine) through COVAX agreements with AstraZeneca directly and with an Indian producer who can be asked to produce one of two potential vaccines, including the AstraZeneca one. See WHO, COVAX Announces additional deals to access promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates; plans global rollout starting Q1 2021, 18 December 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/18-12-2020-covax-announces-additional-deals-to-access-promising-covid-19-vaccine-candidates-plans-global-rollout-starting-q1-2021.

“Geneva/Oslo, 18 December 2020

“COVAX, the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level, today announced that it had arrangements in place to access nearly two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, on behalf of 190 participating economies. For the vast majority of these deals, COVAX has guaranteed access to a portion of the first wave of production, followed by volume scales as further supply becomes available. The arrangements announced today will enable all participating economies to have access to doses in the first half of 2021, with first deliveries anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 – contingent upon regulatory approvals and countries’ readiness for delivery.

“Given these are arrangements for 2 billion doses of vaccine candidates which are still under development, COVAX will continue developing its portfolio: this will be critical to achieve its goal of securing access to 2 billion doses of safe and effective, approved vaccines that are suitable for all participants’ contexts, and available by the end of 2021. However, today’s announcements offer the clearest pathway yet to end the acute phase of the pandemic by protecting the most vulnerable populations around the world. This includes delivering at least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses of approved vaccines in 2021 to the 92 low- and middle-income economies eligible for the COVAX AMC.

“The new deals announced today include the signing of an advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca for 170 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford candidate, and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Johnson & Johnson for 500 million doses of the Janssen candidate, which is currently being investigated as a single dose vaccine.. These deals are in addition to existing agreements COVAX has with the Serum Institute of India (SII) for 200 million doses – with options for up to 900 million doses more – of either the AstraZeneca/Oxford or Novavax candidates, as well as a statement of intent for 200million doses of the Sanofi/GSK vaccine candidate.

“In addition to this, COVAX also has – through R&D partnership agreements – first right of refusal in 2021 to access potentially more than one billion doses (based on current estimates from the manufacturing processes under development) that will be produced, subject to technical success and regulatory approval, by candidates in the COVAX R&D Portfolio.”

* * *

“The COVAX Facility currently has 190 participating economies. This includes 98 higher-income economies and 92 low- and middle-income economies eligible to have their participation in the Facility supported via the financing mechanism known as the Gavi COVAX AMC. Of the 92 economies eligible to be supported by the COVAX AMC, 86 have now submitted detailed vaccine requests, offering the clearest picture yet on actual global demand for COVID-19 vaccines.

“In addition to gathering detailed information on participating economies’ vaccine requests, COVAX, through Gavi, UNICEF,WHO, the World Bank, and other partners has been working closely with all countries in the Facility, particularly AMC-eligible participants, to help plan and prepare for the widespread roll out of vaccines. Conditions that determine country readiness include regulatory preparedness as well as the availability of infrastructure, appropriate legal frameworks, training, and capacity, among other factors.

“’Securing access to doses of a new vaccine for both higher-income and lower-income countries, at roughly the same time and during a pandemic, is a feat the world has never achieved before – let alone at such unprecedented speed and scale,’ said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which leads on procurement and delivery for COVAX. ‘COVAX has now built a platform that offers the world the prospect, for the first time, of being able to defeat the pandemic on a global basis, but the work is not done: it’s critical that both governments and industry continue to support our efforts to achieve this goal’.

Early pledges towards 2021 fundraising targets

“To achieve this ambitious goal, COVAX currently estimates it needs to raise an additional US$ 6.8 billion in 2021 – US$ 800 million for research and development, at least US$ 4.6 billion for the COVAX AMC and US$ 1.4 billion for delivery support.

“Support for the COVAX AMC will be critical to ensuring ability to pay is not a barrier to access. Thanks to the generous support of sovereign, private sector, and philanthropic donors, the AMC has met its urgent 2020 fundraising target of US$ 2 billion, but at least US$ 4.6 billion more is needed in 2021 to procure doses of successful candidates as they come through the portfolio.”

In the United States and in the EU, governments are looking to expand volumes of proven vaccines while awaiting approval of other vaccine candidates. See Pfizer press release, PFIZER AND BIONTECH TO SUPPLY THE U.S. WITH100 MILLION ADDITIONAL DOSES OF COVID-19VACCINE, December 23, 2020, https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-supply-us-100-million-additional-doses; Pfizer press release, PFIZER AND BIONTECH TO SUPPLY THEEUROPEAN UNION WITH 100 MILLIONADDITIONAL DOSES OF COMIRNATY®, December 29, 2020, https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-supply-european-union-100-million; HHS, Trump Administration purchases additional 100 million doses of COVID-19 investigational vaccine from Moderna, December 11, 2020, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/12/11/trump-administration-purchases-additional-100-million-doses-covid-19-investigational-vaccine-moderna.html.

Conclusion

The world is anxiously awaiting the resolution of the pandemic through the approval and distribution of effective vaccines on a global basis in 2021. The good news is that a number of vaccines have been approved in one or more countries and billions of doses of approved vaccines will likely be produced in 2021. The efforts of the WHO, GAVI and CEPI and the generosity of many nations, private and philanthropic organizations will mean people in nearly all countries will receive at least some significant volume of vaccines in 2021. As most vaccines require two shots, the number of people vaccinated in 2021 in an optimistic scenario is probably less than two billion. The world population at the beginning of 2021 is 7.8 billion people. Thus, 2021, even under an optimistic scenario, will not likely result in the eradication of the pandemic around the world.

Even in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and the 27 members of the European Union where advance purchases should result in sufficient doses being available to vaccinate all eligible members of society, there are massive challenges in terms of distribution and vaccinating the numbers of people involved and educating the populations on the safety and benefits of the vaccines. Thus, even in wealthier countries it will be optimistic to achieve the desired levels of vaccination by the end of 2021.

The Director-General of the WHO in his year-end message laid out the likely situation for the world in 2021, the availability of vaccines but the continued need to be vigilant and adhere to preventive measures to control the pandemic and the need to work collectively to ensure equitable and affordable access to vaccines for all. See WHO,COVID-19: One year later – WHO, Director-General’s new year message, December 30, 2020, https://www.who.int/news/item/30-12-2020-covid-19-anniversary-and-looking-forward-to-2021 (Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General)

“As people around the world celebrated New Year’s Eve 12 months ago, a new global threat emerged.

“Since that moment, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken so many lives and caused massive disruption to families, societies and economies all over the world.

“But it also triggered the fastest and most wide-reaching response to a global health emergency in human history.

“The hallmarks of this response have been an unparalleled mobilization of science, a search for solutions and a commitment to global solidarity.

“Acts of generosity, large and small, equipped hospitals with the tools that health workers needed to stay safe and care for their patients.

“Outpourings of kindness have helped society’s most vulnerable through troubled times.

“Vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics have been developed and rolled out, at record speed, thanks to collaborations including the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

“Equity is the essence of the ACT Accelerator, and its vaccine arm, COVAX, which has secured access to 2 billion doses of promising vaccine candidates.

“Vaccines offer great hope to turn the tide of the pandemic.

“But to protect the world, we must ensure that all people at risk everywhere – not just in countries who can afford vaccines –are immunized.

“To do this, COVAX needs just over 4 billion US dollars urgently to buy vaccines for low- and lower-middle income countries.

“This is the challenge we must rise to in the new year.

“My brothers and sisters, the events of 2020 have provided telling lessons, and reminders, for us all to take into 2021.

“First and foremost, 2020 has shown that governments must increase investment in public health, from funding access to COVID vaccines for all people, to making our systems better prepared to prevent and respond to the next, inevitable, pandemic.

“At the heart of this is investing in universal health coverage to make health for all a reality.

“Second, as it will take time to vaccinate everyone against COVID, we must keep adhering to tried and tested measures that keep each and all of us safe.

“This means maintaining physical distance, wearing face masks, practicing hand and respiratory hygiene, avoiding crowded indoor places and meeting people outside.

“These simple, yet effective measures will save lives and reduce the suffering that so many people encountered in 2020.

“Third, and above all, we must commit to working together in solidarity, as a global community, to promote and protect health today, and in the future.

“We have seen how divisions in politics and communities feed the virus and foment the crisis.

“But collaboration and partnership save lives and safeguard societies.

“In 2020, a health crisis of historic proportions showed us just how closely connected we all are.

“We saw how acts of kindness and care helped neighbors through times of great struggle.

“But we also witnessed how acts of malice, and misinformation, caused avoidable harm.

“Going into 2021, we have a simple, yet profound, choice to make:

“Do we ignore the lessons of 2020 and allow insular, partisan approaches, conspiracy theories and attacks on science to prevail, resulting in unnecessary suffering to people’s health and society at large?

“Or do we walk the last miles of this crisis together, helping each other along the way, from sharing vaccines fairly, to offering accurate advice, compassion and care to all who need, as one global family.

“The choice is easy.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will get there by taking the path together.

“WHO stands with you – We Are Family and we are In This Together.

“I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, safe and healthy new year.”

We all want to have the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror as 2021 progresses. There is hope for significant progress this year. How much progress will depend on the will of governments and peoples to focus on the eradication of the pandemic and to support the dramatic ramp up of production, distribution and vaccination of the world’s people.

WTO initiatives on trade and the environment — likely to receive a warm welcome under a Biden Administration

The challenges facing the world from climate change are staggering and getting worse. While the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, a Biden Administration will have the U.S. rejoin and work with other nations to find solutions to the pressing problems.

Today in Geneva, two initiatives were announced by groups of WTO Members. One addresses trade and environmental sustainability and was presented in a communication from 49 Members. Communication on Trade and Environmental Sustainability, WT/CTE/W/249 (17 November 2020). Neither the U.S., China, India, Brazil nor South Africa are on the communication though most developed countries and other Members are initial sponsors. The communication is embedded below.

W249

The second initiative was the launch of an informal dialogue on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastics trade. Seven Members are launching the informal dialogue. All Members are welcome to participate. The seven Members involved in the launch are Australia, Barbados, Canada, China, Fiji, Jamaica and Morocco. Only Australia, Canada and Fiji are part of both initiatives. The press release from the Secretariat on today’s initiatives included the following discussion of the plastics initiative.

“The dialogue is borne out of the recognition of the need for coordinated action to address the rising environmental, health and economic cost of plastics pollution and the importance of the trade dimension as a solution.

“Proponents aim to circulate their communication soon. * * *

“Ambassador Xiangchen Zhang of China said at the online event that possible subjects for discussion include improving transparency, monitoring trade trends, promoting best practices, strengthening policy coherence, identifying the scope for collective approaches, assessing capacity and technical assistance needs, and cooperating with other international processes and efforts. Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji said they hope this informal dialogue will encourage discussion and exploratory work on how the WTO can contribute to efforts to reduce plastics pollution and transition to a circular, more environmentally sustainable plastics trade.”

Deputy Director-General Alan Wm Wolff spoke at today’s event and identified a range of initiatives that have been looked at by the Committee on Trade and Environment, or that could be, that could help move forward both initiatives including resuming talks at eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers on environmental goods and services, reforming subsidies on fossil fuels, promoting a global circular economy, addressing the carbon content of traded products and other actions.

The press release and DDG Wolff’s remarks are embedded below.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-New-initiatives-launched-to-intensify-WTO-work-on-trade-and-the-environment

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-remarks-on-the-Structured-Discussions-on-Trade-and-Environmental-Sustainability

Likely U.S. engagement in a Biden Administration

Because addressing the challenges from climate change are a core priority for the incoming Biden Administration, I would expect that once the new trade team is in place, the U.S. will become involved in both of the initiatives and other activities at the WTO on the importance of finding rules and solutions to pressing trade and environment issues.

The Biden team almost certainly supports most if not all of the items identified in paragraph 1 of the Communication (WT/CTE/W/249), including the importance of multilateral environmental agreements, that there is an urgent need for action on climate change, that trade and environmental objectives and policies should be mutually supportive, that trade and trade policy need to support efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, among others. Similarly, the Biden Administration will presumably strongly support the four areas of activity identified in paragraph 2 of the Communication:

“2. Therefore, express our intention to collaborate, prioritize and advance discussions on trade and environmental sustainability, including by:

“intensifying our work to share experiences and best practices; promote transparency, dialogue and information sharing along the full value chain of products and materials;

“strengthening coherence at the national and international level with a view to identifying areas of common interest and for future work within the WTO, in order for WTO to address more effectively sustainable development issues;

“working in cooperation with relevant international organizations and relevant actors, including the private sector, to identify and support technical assistance and capacity building needs of Members, and in particular least-developed countries (LDCs).

“working on possible actions and deliverables of environmental sustainability in the various areas of the WTO.”

Similarly, I would expect the Biden Administration to have an active interest in working with industry and other governments to address the challenges of plastics pollution, although U.S. interests are likely to be more action oriented than the items teed up by China at today’s announcement.

Conclusion

For years, many Members have fought focusing energies at the WTO on issues involving trade and the environment. With the climate change crisis and consequences being felt around the world, it appears that many or most WTO Members are appreciating the need for the WTO to play its role in addressing sustainable development and the climate change challenge.

With a new U.S. Administration, the U.S. should be a very active participant in moving the WTO and its Members forward.

Informal Heads of Delegation Meeting at WTO confirms Nigerian and Korean candidates advance to third (final) round of consultations in selection of next Director-General

This morning’s 11 a.m. informal heads of delegation meeting in Geneva saw Ambassadors David Walker (New Zealand), Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Harald Aspelund (Iceland) communicate the results of the second round of consultations with WTO Members to the membership. Pursuant to the procedures adopted in 2002 for the selection of the Director-General, the Chair of the General Council together with the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body (the “troika”) consult with each Member of the WTO to receive their preferences in successive rounds of consultations. In the second round, each Member was asked to provide two of five remaining candidates as the Member’s preferences.

As leaked yesterday, the two candidates who advance to the third round of consultations are Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea. The selection of these two candidates was based “on the depth and breadth of preferences articulated” by Members to the troika. “The result creates an historic precedent for the WTO in that it assures that the 7th Director-General will become the first woman to lead the organization.”

The WTO press release from today (October 8) from which all quotes are taken, “WTO members narrow field of DG candidates,” can be found here, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_08oct20_e.htm.

“During the DG selection processes of 2005 and 2013, breadth of support was defined as ‘the distribution of preferences across geographic regions and among the categories of members generally recognized in WTO provisions: that is (least developed countries), developing countries and developed countries.’ The Chair said he and his colleagues were guided by the practices established in these General Council proceedings and he further explained that the decisions made clear that ‘breadth of support means the larger membership’.”

The three candidates not advancing are Amb. Amina C. Mohamed of Kenya, Mr. Mohammed Moziad Al-Tuwaijri of Saudi Arabia and Dr. Liam Fox of the United Kingdom. Amb. Walker (Chair of the General Council) said “On behalf of the entire membership, I would like to express deep gratitude for their participation in this selection process. It was clear that members consider them individuals of outstanding qualifications. I am sure you will all agree with us that in participating in the selection process, the candidates have all made a significant contribution to the standing and image of the WTO.”

The third round of consultations will start October 19 and end on October 27. There will be another informal heads of delegation meeting so that Amb. Walker and his facilitators can present the results of the third round of consultations, probably on Thursday, October 29.

The Chair of the General Council will then call a General Council meeting before November 7 to present their recommendation of the candidate most likely to obtain consensus. If Members agree, that candidate becomes the next Director-General. If there is a lack of consensus, the 2002 procedures provide for the possibility of a vote.

As reviewed in my post yesterday, the two candidates who are advancing have significantly different backgrounds presenting Members with an interesting choice. See October 7, 2020, Nigerian and Korean candidates advance to final round of consultations to become next WTO Director-General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/07/nigerian-and-korean-candidates-advance-to-final-round-of-consultations-to-become-next-wto-director-general/.

While politics obviously has a role in the selection process, both candidates bring high-level government experience and an ability to work with various levels of government officials from many countries. Minister Yoo touted the fact that Korea has gone through significant economic development during her lifetime and so she has seen the needs of her country at various stages of economic development which would help her understand the needs of all WTO Members. She has also engaged in negotiations with many of the major WTO Members, including the U.S. and China. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is a development economist and has expressed an interest in various issues where working with other international organizations would be important to ensure participation by all WTO members in WTO issues (e.g., addressing the digital divide which prevents many developing and least developed countries from engaging on e-commerce; ensuring access by all Members to vaccines and therapeutics to address the COVID-19 pandemic).

While the process of selecting a new Director-General is cumbersome, it was developed after the challenges in 1999 when no consensus was reached on a single candidate to give a greater likelihood of Members reaching a consensus on candidates put forward. The procedures worked in 2005 and in 2013 and appear to be working this year.

WTO Dispute Settlement Body Meeting of August 28, 2020 — How disputes are being handled in the absence of reform of the Appellate Body

No forward movement has been made on resolving the impasse of the WTO’s Appellate Body which effectively ceased to operate for new appeals after December 10, 2019 when the number of active Appellate Body members fell below the minimum of three needed to hear appeals. At every monthly Dispute Settlement Body meeting, one of the Members presents the proposal to start the process of selecting new Appellate Body members and the U.S. indicates it is not in a position to agree to that action.

While the impasse continues, Members are dealing with how to proceed on specific disputes that have been filed and how to deal with panel decisions that get issued. For the EU and 22 other Members who are parties to the multi-party interim appeal arrangement (MPIA), disputes involving two members of the MPIA are handled through the MPIA after a panel decision if one or both parties are dissatisifed with the panel decision. Current members of the MPIA are Australia, Benin, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the European Union, Guatemala, Hong Kong (China), Iceland, Mexico, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uruguay. This means that more than 110 WTO Members are not parties to the MPIA including the United States, Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Argentina, Peru, Egypt, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation and many others.

Disputes between all other WTO Members or between other Members and one of the MPIA members require the parties to the dispute either before the panel decision or afterwards to decide how they will proceed. Concerns of many WTO Members is that a party dissatisfied with a panel decision will take an appeal which will effectively stop resolution of the matter as an appeal cannot be heard while there is no functioning Appellate Body.

MPIA members can take appeals where they are in a dispute with a non-MPIA member instead of seeking resolution through other means. For example, the Russian Federation is not a member of the MPIA. Their dispute with the EU on its antidumping methodology resulted in a panel decision that the EU found problematic. The EU filed an appeal on August 28, 2020. See WTO, Dispute Settlement, EU appeals panel report on EU dumping methodologies, duties on Russian imports, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ds494apl_28aug20_e.htm. When raised at the August 28 dispute settlement body (DSB) meeting, Russia provided the following comment:

“The Russian Federation made a statement regarding the European Union’s appeal of the panel ruling in in DS494 (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds494_e.htm) (EU —
Cost Adjustment Methodologies and Certain Anti-Dumping Measures on Imports from Russia). Russia said it was disappointed with the EU’s decision and that that the EU’s action, in the absence of a functioning Appellate Body, essentially meant that the matter was being appealed “into the void.” The EU was seeking to escape its obligations by not trying to resolve the dispute,
Russia said.” https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dsb_28aug20_e.htm.

Interestingly, the EU has been working to be able to retaliate on any WTO Member who is not a party to the MPIA who appeals from a panel decision where the EU is a party. Presumably they understand that their action will encourage countries like the Russian Federation to take unilateral action against the EU where the EU appeals a panel decision instead of seeking a mutually agreeable solution.

The United States has reviewed at prior DSB meetings that there are many ways for Members to resolve disputes between themselves. At the recent DSB meeting, the U.S. in its prepared statement, after reviewing its ongoing concerns with the Appellate Body and the need to understand why the Appellate Body ignored the clear limits on its authority under the Dispute Settlement Understanding, provided examples of how Members are resolving disputes since December 10, 2019:

“ As discussions among Members continue, the dispute settlement system continues to function.

“ The central objective of that system remains unchanged: to assist the parties to find a solution to their dispute. As before, Members have many methods to resolve a dispute, including through bilateral engagement, alternative dispute procedures, and third-party adjudication.

“ As noted at prior meetings of the DSB, Members are experimenting and deciding what makes the most sense for their own disputes.

“ For instance, in Indonesia – Safeguard on Certain Iron or Steel Products (DS490/DS496), Chinese Taipei, Indonesia, and Vietnam reached procedural understandings that included an agreement not to appeal any compliance panel report.3

“ Similarly, in the dispute United States – Anti-Dumping Measures on Certain Oil Country Tubular Goods from Korea (DS488), Korea and the United States agreed not to appeal the report of any compliance panel.4

“ Australia and Indonesia have agreed not to appeal the panel report in the dispute Australia – Anti-Dumping Measures on A4 Copy Paper (DS529).5

“ Parties should make efforts to find a positive solution to their dispute, consistent with the aim of the WTO dispute settlement system.

“ The United States will continue to insist that WTO rules be followed by the WTO dispute settlement system. We will continue our efforts and our discussions with Members and with the Chair to seek a solution on these important issues.

“3 ‘Understanding between Indonesia and Chinese Taipei regarding Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU’, (WT/DS490/3) (April 11, 2019), para. 7 (‘The parties agree that if, on the date of the circulation of the panel report under Article 21.5 of the DSU, the Appellate Body is composed of fewer than three Members available to serve on a division in an appeal in these proceedings, they will not appeal that report under Articles 16.4 and 17 of the DSU.’) and ‘Understanding between Indonesia and Viet Nam regarding Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU’, WT/DS496/14 (March 22, 2019), para. 7 (‘The parties agree that if, on the date of the circulation of the panel report under Article 21.5 of the DSU, the Appellate Body is composed of fewer than three Members available to serve on a division in an appeal in these proceedings, they will not appeal that report under Articles 16.4 and 17 of the DSU.’).

“4 ‘Understanding between the Republic of Korea and the United States regarding Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU’, (WT/DS488/16) (February 6, 2020), para. 4 (‘Following circulation of the report of the Article 21.5 panel, either party may request adoption of the Article 21.5 panel report at a meeting of the DSB within 60 days of circulation of the report. Each party to the dispute agrees not to appeal the report of the Article 21.5 panel pursuant to Article 16.4 of the DSU.’).

“5 Minutes of the Meeting of the Dispute Settlement Body on January 27, 2020 (WT/DSB/M/440), paras. 4.2 (‘Indonesia also wished to thank Australia for working together with Indonesia in a spirit of cooperation in order to reach an agreement not to appeal the Panel Report’ and 4.3 (‘Australia and Indonesia had agreed not to appeal the Panel Report and to engage in good faith negotiations of a reasonable period of time for Australia to bring its measures into conformity with the DSB’s recommendations and rulings, in accordance with Article 21.3(b) of the DSU.’).”

Statements by the United States at the Meeting of the WTO Dispute Settle- ment Body, Geneva, August 28, 2020 at 14, https://geneva.usmission.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/290/Aug28.DSB_.Stmt_.as-deliv.fin_.public.pdf.

Thus, there are ways for WTO Members to resolve disputes between themselves even with the Appellate Body inoperative. Some countries, like Australia, have sought positive resolutions where the other disputing party is not a member of MPIA. To date, the European Union has not sought resolution with members who are not party to the MPIA but have rather filed appeals so cases will sit in limbo until such time as the impasse is resolved.

Concluding comments

While each of the eight candidates to become the next Director-General of the WTO believe resolution of the dispute settlement system impasse is an important priority for the WTO, they differ in how quickly they believe Members will be able to overcome the impasse — Dr. Jesus Seade (Mexico) believes it can be resolved in the first 100 days. Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi believes that the challenges presented will not be resolved ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021 but will be resolved sometime thereafter. Most other candidates hold out hope that the impasse can be resolved by the next Ministerial in 2021. Thus, the current situation of no functioning Appellate Body may continue for some time.

The U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in an Op Ed last week in the Wall Street Journal suggested that reform of the dispute settlement system is critical but may involve changing the system from its existing two-tiered configuration under the DSU to a one-tier process more like commercial arbitration. If that is the path that the United States pursues, resolution of the current situation will take years. See August 24, 2020,  USTR Lighthizer’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal – How to Set World Trade Straight, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/08/24/ustr-lighthizers-op-ed-in-the-wall-street-journal-how-to-set-world-trade-straight/.

Similarly, if dispute settlement reform is lumped into the broader WTO reform being discussed, the timing will be significantly delayed if reform of the WTO is to be meaningful and return the organization to a place of relevance in the 21st century.

With the queue of panel decisions that are yet due this year involving some high profile issues (e.g., national security actions by the United States on steel and aluminum and retaliation taken by many trading partners) and with the recent panel report on the U.S. countervailing duty order on Canadian softwood lumber, pressure will likely build on WTO Members to find a lasting solution to the current impasse. Increased pressure suggests heightened tensions in an organization already suffering from distrust among Members and, as a result, largely nonfunctioning pillars of negotiation, notification/monitoring, dispute settlement. In short, 2021 promises to be a challenging environment for the WTO Members and the incoming Director-General.