Dire WTO General Council meeting shows scale of Okonjo-Iweala’s task

If this was an indication of members’ willingness to listen to the new director-general they had picked, then she must be disappointed

Virtual General Council Mar 1 2021 WTO Bryan Lehmann

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 5, 2021 | UPDATED JULY 25, 2021

‘It cannot be business as usual,” she had said when she was appointed. “It cannot be business as usual,” the ambassadors had echoed as they congratulated her. And at the next opportunity they did their utmost to demonstrate the exact opposite.

If Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala needed evidence of how much had to change at the World Trade Organization (WTO), her first few days as director-general offered her plenty to think about. Some who attended the WTO General Council’s first regular meeting of the year said it was one of the worst they could remember.

The General Council is never a bundle of laughs. It is the WTO’s top decision-making body outside the biennial ministerial conferences. And it is the final destination for routine reports on the work of the membership in all the subordinate committees. Like almost all of those committees it comprises the full membership.

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● Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s statement at her first General Council meeting, March 1, 2020
● Her acceptance statement to the WTO General Council, February 15, 2021

● All pieces tagged “WTO waiver”

This meeting’s 17-item agenda included reports on the follow-up on decisions taken at the last ministerial conference in 2017, the latest developments in talks to accept new members, and a report from the Working Group on Trade, Debt and Finance. Yawn-inducing indeed, but an efficient meeting would deal with them quickly. Not this one.

The people heading the delegations in the General Council are ambassadors or equivalent. Okonjo-Iweala tried to encourage them to be more constructive.

At the start of the meeting on March 1, her first day in office, she observed that several ambassadors had already admitted that they talk past each other: “You don’t talk to each other. This approach has to change.”

She might as well have saved her breath. The General Council simply launched into marathon sessions of bad old habits.

It wasn’t just business as usual. It was the same but worse. The speeches were endless and repetitive. They were divisive and recriminating. There was no bridge-building, one attendee said. Even the most mild-mannered of General Council chairs, New Zealand Ambassador David Walker, lost patience.

The best interpretation, one analyst suggested, is that this was the last meeting of leaderless drift rather than a harbinger of worse to come.

(The 174-page minutes have now been derestricted. They are here.)

The seemingly endless first day included a decision on the date and place of the next ministerial conference, delayed because of the pandemic and other issues. That decision was easy and should have been swift. Everyone knew already that the ministerial conference was to move from Nur-Sultan to Geneva and from mid-2020 to November/December 2021. And there were, after all, a lot of more difficult issues on the agenda.

Nevertheless, over 20 ambassadors queued up to congratulate Kazakhstan on agreeing to the move and to be the conference’s chair.

Sometime later, the meeting heard a “status report” from the chair of the TRIPS (intellectual property) Council on members’ deadlock over a proposal to waive protection for patents and other rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It ought to have been enough for delegates simply to listen to the report. After all, it said nothing new, just what the members themselves had been repeating in numerous formal and informal sessions since October 2020, and indeed in the previous General Council meeting in December.

But this had become a big political conflict and the ambassadors decided it was important to stand up and be counted — again. They repeated everything they had said before, and everything anyone else was saying on their side of the debate.

Or as one chair is rumoured to have once quipped: “everything was said but not everybody said it”. In this case representatives of everybody probably said it too, because several spoke for overlapping regional groups. Indeed, much of the membership was represented more than once.

By the end of the first afternoon members had finished six of the 17 items on the agenda. So far, the intellectual property waiver had been the only item with any real substance. And yet almost nothing new had been said.

David Walker chairing General Council Mar 1, 2021
Chairing a marathon: Walker urged ambassadors to “think about the tradecraft we’re engaged in” | © WTO Brian Lehmann

The following day as he re-opened the meeting, General Council chair Walker urged the ambassadors to “think about the tradecraft we’re engaged in”, according to some people attending.

No one was listening. Not to Walker, or to Okonjo-Iweala, or to each other. Five more repetitive hours followed, much of it acrimonious.

The lengthiest debate was about a group of negotiations known in WTO-speak as “plurilaterals”. Only part of the membership participates. If the whole “multilateral” membership is not ready for new commitments, then some of them could go ahead first, and others could join in later.

Okonjo-Iweala agrees with participants that this is one way to drag the WTO into the 21st century. “Plurilateral initiatives have brought new energy in the multilateral trading system,” she had told members in her acceptance statement on February 15.

That is the view of a large majority of WTO member governments. Over 140 of the 164 members are involved in at least one of these talks — barely 20 are not involved in any. Participation in any one of the five topics ranges from about 65 members to almost 120.

Three topics would clearly produce new and more modern rules and commitments: e-commerce or digital trade, domestic regulation in services, and investment facilitation. Two more are at early exploratory stages and could eventually produce rules: micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs); and trade and gender.

But India and South Africa are challenging the approach. In a paper presented at the meeting they questioned the legality, and argued that plurilateral talks damage and fragment multilateralism, and distract from more traditional negotiations such as on agriculture.

They are clearly in a minority. Their new paper sparked dismay and condemnation from many of the members participating in the talks.

The paper risked leaving the WTO as an “archaic” and “useless” organisation, said Russia. It was not really about legality but about preventing the WTO from moving forward, and far from being distracted, participants in the plurilaterals are equally active in the traditional subjects, Russia added.

The Philippines complained about a minority seeking to frustrate a majority who want to modernise the rules.

Mexico and the EU warned that obstructing the plurilaterals would leave the WTO outdated and irrelevant. The talks would just move outside the WTO, the EU said.

And so they piled on. Support for India and South Africa came from a handful of their neighbours, plus Tanzania, Cuba and Oman.

Perhaps the most intriguing reaction was China’s. China did not speak at all.

Beijing likes to position itself in the alliance of developing countries that includes India, but it is active in all the plurilaterals — as are large numbers of developing countries.

At least this was a new debate on a new issue, but it did nothing to help the WTO move forward.

And so it dragged on, this bizarre meeting with Walker and Okonjo-Iweala distanced on the podium in front of a huge, empty room. And still it dragged on. Into a third day on March 4.

Ngozi Colours
Freshening up: Okonjo-Iweala wants to brighten drab WTO meetings but will members listen? | © WTO Jay Louvian and Brian Lehmann

Several people blame the virtual format, forced on the international organisations in Geneva by Switzerland’s COVID-19 restrictions. Some say that because their bosses in the capitals could also log in to the online meetings, delegates were playing to the galleries back home in the ministries.

Others say that because the ambassadors were speaking from their homes, they were more relaxed about time-keeping, focusing on their own statements rather than what others were saying, and able to pop in and out of the room more easily than in a face-to-face meeting.

The WTO has been drifting, some add, with no leadership. For almost a year the Secretariat had lacked an effective director-general; while the US under Donald Trump had dropped out of leadership among the members, which is where the real power lies in the WTO.

Okonjo-Iweala is now starting a honeymoon period where she might actually be able to break bad old habits. People close to the WTO believe she has the character to influence change. Some believe she should act swiftly while she and her reputation are still as fresh as the colourful Ankara outfits she brings to the meetings.

But for now she has not had time even to appoint her deputies and to pick the professionals in her office team. The best hope is that the analyst is right, that this really was the last meeting of leaderless drift.

One outcome it did produce was the first deadline: the ministerial conference at the end of the year, when Okonjo-Iweala and many members hope to have some key issues settled and others given clearer direction.

March to November is very short on the WTO’s time scale. Okonjo-Iweala is ready to move. Are the ambassadors and their ministers?

July 25, 2020 — adding the link to the derestricted minutes, attribution of the quote from the chair clarified
March 5, 2020 — correcting quote from Russia

Image credits:
Photos | © WTO Brian Lehmann and Jay Louvian


Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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