Can the WTO bring the world together?

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Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala look on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, following her hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states' representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General.
Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala look on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, following her hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states' representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General.



Okonjo-Iweala has called Covid-19 vaccine inequity “unconscionable” and has given top priority to a deal to facilitate the flow of the vaccines more widely.

Even though demand for Covid-19 shots has tapered off, India, South Africa and about 100 other backers are seeking a potential waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines and treatments.

However, World Trade Organization (WTO) members remain divided over a draft deal for the vaccines negotiated between the four main parties – India, South Africa, the EU and the US – that was forged to break an 18-month deadlock.

Protest groups are urging members to reject it, and China has lodged an objection.


Separate negotiations are aimed at removing subsidies that contribute to overfishing, a step that environmentalists say is important to help fish stocks recover.

But talks have been going on for 20 years and attempts at a deal failed at the last ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2017.

WTO deputy head Xiangchen Zhang said the fisheries outcome would be a “critical test” of the WTO’s credibility.

Colombian chair Santiago Wills says a global deal is “within reach”, but considerable differences remain, including over forced labour and the scale of exemptions for developing countries that could include the world’s top fishing nation – China. The latest draft deal from November contained 26 pairs of square brackets indicating unresolved areas.

India has been one of the biggest critics.


The WTO boss is holding private consultations with a group of key economies, aiming for a response to the food crisis driven partly by export disruptions from major wheat exporters Ukraine and Russia.

One option is a so-called ministerial declaration on ending tariffs on humanitarian food deliveries as proposed by Singapore, but even this does not yet command consensus, delegates say.

A draft agreement on other aspects of agricultural policy may be submitted to ministers ahead of the conference, but sources say vast gaps remained in key areas, including the form and level of allowable subsidies.


A ban on import duties or so-called electronic transmissions worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year is up for renewal.

The moratorium has been in place since 1998, but South Africa and India have launched a separate proposal to lift it.

They have opposed an extension in the past, citing lost customs revenues, but have so far not blocked it.


All WTO members say the organisation’s rule book needs updating, although they disagree on how to do so.

Most pressingly, its dispute appeals court has been paralysed for nearly two years since then US president Donald Trump blocked new adjudicator appointments, which has quelled the appetite to seek redress of trade disputes through the WTO.

Okonjo-Iweala hopes members can agree to a road map for reforming the dispute settlement procedure at the meeting.

However, delegates say there is little common ground, with some wanting only small tweaks and others, such as the US, seeking a broad overhaul of a system described by its top trade official Katherine Tai as “unwieldy and bureaucratic”.


Negotiations began in 2020 and are in a preliminary phase.

However, some experts think the environment has the potential to give the organisation a new vitality and purpose.

New Zealand submitted a fossil fuel phase-out proposal, but most delegates see this as too ambitious.

If a deal on cutting fishing subsidies is agreed to, that could give environmental efforts some momentum. Reuters


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