Relieved applause: WTO has been struggling to reach its first agreement in years

Relieved applause
WTO has been trying to reach its first agreement in years

The World Trade Organization has been blocked for years. After several days of round-the-clock negotiations, there is a small breakthrough: the 164 member states agree on agreements with sometimes vague clauses. Criticism comes from many environmental and development NGOs.

After several days of tough negotiations almost around the clock, the 164 member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have signed agreements for the first time in years. Early Friday morning, among other things, they agreed on agreements to enable the production of Covid vaccines in more countries and to ban subsidies for illegal and unregulated fishing and thus protect overfished stocks. However, a planned agreement on agricultural trade did not come about. Environmental and development organizations criticized the result as insufficient.

“You don’t go home empty-handed,” said WTO boss Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the end of the conference, which was supposed to end on Wednesday. In the absence of an agreement, the 68-year-old had pushed for an extension because she did not want to accept her first ministerial meeting as a flop. “The WTO has demonstrated its ability to respond to the challenges of our time.”

Applause, celebration and criticism

At the final meeting of the government representatives at 5 a.m., there was not only long applause when the conference chairman formally stated that all member countries support the agreements. There was also a festive mood in the packed room: ministers, civil servants and diplomats spontaneously struck up a belated birthday song for Okonjo-Iweala and another minister. According to her own statements, she was not in the mood to celebrate on her actual day of honor, on Monday, because she feared that the conference would fail.

Civil society representatives did not join in the applause. “It is shameful that WTO members would prioritize trying to save a ailing institution and obscene corporate profits over saving lives,” said Melinda St. Louis of Public Citizen. The EU in particular has blocked the abolition of patent rights (TRIPS waiver) demanded by many countries. The agreement reached is not enough.

Hours of debate about single words

Ministers also agreed to launch WTO reforms with a work programme. The partially idle dispute settlement mechanism should be working again in two years. They extended an agreement not to impose any tariffs on international digital trade for the time being.

They also agreed that purchases by the World Food Program (WFP), which provides food to the world’s hungry, should not be hampered by export restrictions. At the same time, however, they left the door open to do exactly this if it serves to adequately provide for their own population. The sometimes vague formulations, which leave a lot of room for interpretation, were a sign of the often tricky negotiations.

Diffuse promises

In addition to the individual agreements, there was a general final declaration with vague promises like this: “We are committed to working towards necessary reforms in the WTO. (…) In our opinion, the reforms should improve all functions.” To this day, she doesn’t understand how one can debate a single word in a footnote for hours, said Okonjo-Iweala to the laughter of the ministers.

Greenpeace expert Jürgen Knirsch criticized that “all controversial issues such as agriculture, fisheries, e-commerce and TRIPS have an impact on the environment and climate. But climate protection and the preservation of biodiversity hardly ever appeared in the negotiations”. From the point of view of Nelly Grotefendt, trade policy officer at the Environment and Development Forum, health issues were also neglected.

The result is particularly sobering for the area of ​​global health in times of a pandemic. The Bread for the World organization criticized the fact that there were no concrete proposals on how developing countries could become less dependent on food imports. “The focus of the declaration on food security is once again the well-known call to avoid export restrictions,” said Francisco Mari, the organization’s agricultural trade expert.

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