GENEVA — (AP) — The head of the World Trade Organization predicted a “bumpy and rocky” road as he opened his highest-level meeting in 4½ years on Sunday, with issues including preparing for a pandemic, food insecurity and overfishing of the world’s seas on the agenda.
At a time when some are questioning the relevance of the WTO, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala hopes the meeting involving more than 120 ministers from the group’s 164 member countries will lead to progress towards reducing inequalities and ensuring fair and free trade.
Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that the Geneva-based trade body needed reform, but said she was cautiously optimistic that agreement could be reached on at least one of the main ambitions of the meeting. , such as fishing or COVID vaccines.
“The road will be bumpy and rocky. There might be a few landmines on the way,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “We’ll have to navigate these landmines and see how we can manage to land a deliverable or two.”
In her opening speech, she said a “trust deficit” had emerged over the years after the collapse of negotiations known as the Doha Round more than a decade ago.
“The negativism is compounded by the negative advocacy of some think tanks and civil society groups here in Geneva and elsewhere who believe the WTO is not working for the people,” she said. “That is of course not true, although we have not been able to demonstrate it clearly.
She cited an array of crises facing the world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic; environmental crises such as droughts, floods and heat waves; and inflationary pressures that have been compounded by food shortages and rising fuel prices related to Russia’s war in Ukraine. She noted that the higher prices “hit the poor the hardest”.
“With history looming over us, with this seemingly fragile multilateral system, now is the time to invest in it, not withdraw from it,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “Now is the time to mobilize the political will that we so badly need to show that the WTO can be part of the solution to the multiple crises, to the global commons that we face.”
The WTO chief insisted that trade has lifted 1 billion people out of poverty, but the poorest countries – and the poor of the rich – are often left behind.
Blocked ports in Ukraine have hampered exports of up to 25 million tonnes of grain from the key European breadbasket.
Ministers at the meeting will discuss whether to lift or ease food export restrictions to help countries facing shortages of wheat, fertilizers and other commodities due to war in Ukraine. They will also decide whether or not to increase support for the United Nations World Food Program to help needy countries around the world.
“I urge WTO members with the capacity to commit at MC12 to exempt their donations to the World Food Program from any export restrictions,” said Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative, referring to the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.
Okonjo-Iweala hopes member countries, which make decisions by consensus, can also reach an agreement on whether to temporarily waive WTO intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines.
The subject generated months of contentious negotiations. The pharmaceutical industry wants to protect its innovations while advocacy groups say the devastation of the pandemic deserves an exemption from the usual rules and developing countries say they need better access to vaccines.
Some experts and diplomats say two decades of WTO efforts to curb overfishing in the world’s seas appear to be closer than ever to a deal.
The draft fisheries text aims to limit government subsidies – such as for fuel – to fishing boats or workers who engage in “illegal, unreported and unreported” fishing, or national subsidies that contribute to “the overcapacity or overfishing”. Some workers in developing countries could benefit from exemptions.
“This agreement is crucial for the 260 million people around the world whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “It is also essential to the sustainability of our oceans, where the latest studies show that almost 50% of the stocks for which we have data are overfished.”
An umbrella group of non-governmental groups, ‘Our World is Not for Sale’, said more than 50 NGOs had been denied access they had previously been granted to attend opening day events .
WTO spokesman Daniel Pruzin said that due to “space limitations” at the WTO and events inside, “unfortunately we have not been able to grant access to accredited NGOs, both civil society groups and business groups”. He said they would be allowed access to the remainder of the ministerial meeting from Monday.
The World Trade Organization, created in 1995 as a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has seen a slow dismantling – often because US objections have largely crippled its dispute settlement system.
The WTO has not produced a major trade agreement for years. The latest, struck nearly a decade ago, was a deal that cut bureaucracy when clearing goods at borders and was touted as a boost for low-income countries.
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