Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic

Members unable to endorse David Walker’s draft ministerial declaration

Experienced: David Walker’s task is to compile ideas from the membership on trade and the pandemic, except intellectual property | WTO

May 9, 2022 — In 2022, Honduras Ambassador Dacio Castillo took over as “facilitator”. He continued to modify the draft according to members’ comments. The aim was to agree on the text for the upcoming Ministerial Conference in parallel with a compromise deal on intellectual property. Castillo had succeeded Walker as General Council chair for 2021. See the final paragraph here.

New dates — On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13. The dates were later fixed for June 12–15.

Late on Friday November 26, 2021, WTO members had agreed in an urgently-called meeting to postpone indefinitely the four-day Ministerial Conference due to start the following Tuesday.

The reason was new travel restrictions announced by Switzerland earlier in the day after a new COVID-19 variant of concern was discovered in southern Africa. The variant had also been detected in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

Switzerland banned flights from southern Africa and required COVID-19 tests and quarantine for travellers from the region and the three other countries. This would effectively prevent ministers and officials from those countries from attending the WTO Conference in Geneva.

By Peter Ungphakorn

Four days before trade ministers were due to gather for the first World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in four years, their delegates in Geneva were divided on what to recommend they should say in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The disagreement on Friday (November 26, 2021) centred on parts of a draft ministerial declaration and post-conference action plan designed to reflect members’ shared approach to the pandemic and how they would address their differences through the action plan.

The delegates had then intended to continue to try to break the deadlock over the weekend. But their efforts have been interrupted because the Ministerial Conference is now postponed as a result of new Swiss travel and quarantine restrictions.

The document has been prepared by New Zealand ambassador David Walker, who is a former WTO General Council chair. He was appointed by the present chair, ambassador Dacio Castillo of Honduras, to help members prepare a response to the pandemic. Castillo presided over this meeting.

A number of members consider the response to the pandemic to be a priority for the WTO in the present climate because of a number of trade issues affecting the development, production and equitable distribution of vaccines and other medical products. They are also concerned about the disruption caused by the pandemic on the flow of food and other goods and services more generally.

Proposals for the WTO’s response and how to boost resilience and recovery have been submitted by the EU, the Ottawa Group and allies (56 members, both developed and developing), and a group of developing countries (Egypt, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uganda and Venezuela — their document is not public)

The topic is also close to the heart of the WTO’s new director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The Nigerian chaired GAVI, the vaccines alliance, before taking office at the WTO in March. Since then she has held numerous meetings with leaders of governments, international organisations, industry and civil society organisations in the search for solutions to the many production and supply problems caused by the pandemic.

Walker’s revised text, circulated on November 22, includes a new section in the draft declaration on “supporting inclusive recovery and resilience”. It focuses on the WTO’s role in promoting growth and development. It highlights the way WTO rules have helped members, particularly developing and least-developed countries, during the pandemic. These rules will be important in future pandemics, the draft suggests. Building resilience includes non-medical issues such as food security.

Walker is quoted as saying the draft recognises differences of opinions on these subjects but also aims to outline where a shared view might evolve.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her press conference after selection as the next WTO head | Screengrab of WTO video via YouTube
Close to her heart: dealing with the pandemic is one of the priorities of WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | WTO
ReactionsBack to top

Judging by accounts from trade sources in Geneva, delegations’ reactions varied. At one end of the scale was India’s opposition to the document being transmitted to ministers in this form, although India said it could be a starting point, and that more was needed on intellectual property.

In the middle was China, which said it could live with it, and Australia, quoted saying the process had been fair because the result was a document causing “an equal measure of unhappiness” among the members.

At the other end was Switzerland, saying the draft was not ambitious enough and that intellectual property should not be the focus here since it was being discussed in the intellectual property council.

Unlike the critical letter from non-governmental organisations a week ago, none of the many delegates who spoke called for Walker’s efforts to be scrapped.

One of the biggest differences is how much the text should say on intellectual property. Many developing countries see patents and other intellectual property as an obstacle to dealing with the health aspects of the pandemic. Some other countries disagree.

Walker has included a “placeholder” in the preamble of the draft declaration, where a brief reference would be inserted to reflect the latest situation in separate and also deadlocked talks on a proposal to waive intellectual property protection to deal with the pandemic.

He has said he does not want to duplicate the talks on the waiver, but some pro-waiver countries wanted his document to reflect more fully their views on why intellectual property is a problem.

Some countries such as South Africa — a proponent of the intellectual property waiver — said the latest draft was an improvement but wanted more on patents and related issues. Sri Lanka complained that Walker’s meetings were unrepresentative of developing and least-developed countries. The EU said the text was fair.

A number of countries commented on the deadlock on this paper itself. Brazil complained that some countries were adding new items at the last minute and criticised some delegations for not turning up at previous meetings.

The US sympathised with the comments of a number of developing countries but added that the draft text cannot be assumed to override countries’ positions.

The draft helps members move forward, it reportedly said. But the US called for constructive proposals that can enjoy consensus. It said repeated attempts to insert items that break other countries’ red lines would make the whole exercise pointless.

Castillo urged delegations to talk to each other to find a way through and suggested another meeting on Sunday. This is now unlikely to take place.

May 20, 2022 — adding Castillo’s talks in the update box
February 24, 2022 — adding rescheduled dates of the Ministerial Conference
November 26–29, 2021 — changes reflecting the decision to postpone the Ministerial Conference; some hyperlinks added

Image credits:
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, David Walker | WTO

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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