WTO agriculture negotiators face challenge of thinking outside the box(es)

Monday’s retreat is an attempt to produce fresh thinking that might break the deadlock in the two remaining pillars.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 23, 2022 | UPDATED OCTOBER 24, 2022

See also the report on the retreat (published October 26, 2022):
WTO agriculture retreat said strong on context but weak on give-and-take

Brain-storming. Blue sky thinking. Wiping the slate clean. Thinking outside the box. Pick your cliché. World Trade Organization (WTO) members’ ambassadors and agriculture attachés go on a “retreat” tomorrow (October 24) as they try to discover solutions where none have been found for over a decade.

The common impression is that the WTO agriculture negotiations have achieved nothing since they started almost a quarter of a century ago in 2000.

This is partly because after just over a year (in 2001), the talks were rolled into the newly launched and broader Doha Round of WTO negotiations. And now the Doha Round is widely considered to be dead.

Officially the position is more complicated. Some members say the Doha Round is over. Others say the original mandate continues — they refuse to endorse the end of the round.

In practice some parts of the Doha Round have been concluded, such as the Trade Facilitation and Fisheries Subsidies agreements. Other parts are in limbo or the talks have dried up, at least among the full membership. What has faded away is the idea of the talks as one unified package or “single undertaking”.

(An aside here. What almost no one has noticed is that the Trade Negotiations Committee of the WTO membership — with the director-general ex officio in the chair — still meets. This committee was set up specifically within the Doha Round. If the round has ended so should the Trade Negotiations Committee. That would also mean the director-general has no official position in any council or committee of the WTO membership.)

Continue reading “WTO agriculture negotiators face challenge of thinking outside the box(es)”
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Unlikely video star outshines trade big-guns at WTO ministerial conference

Imagine. What if these viewing figures show where the WTO is heading?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 21, 2022 | UPDATED SEPTEMBER 16, 2022

The World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference ended two days late on Friday morning (June 17, 2022), the concluding session pushed back by stamina-draining and sometimes chaotic round-the-clock haggling, drafting and redrafting.

And yet this was supposed to be a streamlined meeting. The important-sounding “plenary sessions” were scrapped, replaced by pre-recorded videos so that ministers and their delegations wouldn’t have to pop out of sessions on real substance to talk platitudes to a near-empty room.

As Robert Wolfe and I wrote a while ago:

“After the stars of the show have made their statements on the opening day — the host dignitary, director-general, guest speaker, ministers from the US, EU, and China — the plenaries retreat to a much smaller room for speeches by the rest of the ministers.

“Often the only delegates present are from the minister’s own team. The conference TV camera zooms in on the minister, leaving the empty seats invisible. Ministers may think they are making important statements for the record. No one else cares one jot, except perhaps the audience back home.”

Last week’s video statements can be watched by anyone with an internet connection and a phone or computer, anywhere in the world.

They are all here, all 150 of them.

So how did those video statements fare?

Bearing in mind that in almost all cases the texts can be read without spending time on the videos, the viewing numbers of people all over the world are not really any bigger than the in-room audiences when the statements are delivered in person.

For example, how many watched the minister usually considered to be the most powerful in the WTO, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai?

Go on, have a guess.

Screenshot of Tai making her statement
How many watched? US Trade Representative Katherine Tai delivers her statement

By Monday afternoon (June 20, 2022), a week after the videos were posted, 252 people had watched Tai’s video.

Two hundred and fifty-two.

And Tai’s viewing figures were the third best out of all 150 statements.

She was beaten by Nepal (267) and, wait for it …

… Grenada, with a whopping 1,897.

Yes almost two thousand people, almost 10 times the number who watched Tai, watched the statement from Grenada.

Why? Grenada didn’t even send a minister.

The statement was delivered by its Ambassador, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization, His Excellency Justin Sun.

(Google him.)

These are the top 10 viewing figures.

  1. Grenada – 1,897
  2. Nepal – 267
  3. USA – 252
  4. China – 188
  5. Benin – 162
  6. India – 150
  7. Russian Federation – 134
  8. Ukraine – 105
  9. Kazakhstan – 99
  10. South Africa – 98

If you Googled H.E.Justin Sun, you’ll have seen he’s a really big shot in cryptocurrency. He has 3.3 million followers on Twitter.

How did he become Grenada’s ambassador to the WTO?

It’s a long story. A very long story. From China via South Korea to the US and on to various jurisdictions, mainly islands. You can read it all here.

This bit is relevant:

“Sun also announced he’s now Grenada’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization, where he says he’ll advocate for favourable cryptocurrency policy.

“Because of the new title, one of his senior employees issued proper guidance to workers on Slack for how to correctly refer to Sun as ‘his excellency.’ Former employees speculated the ambassadorship is a play for diplomatic immunity. But so far, he’s most notably used his public office to promote Tron.

“Sun met with Russia’s representative to the WTO after their military invaded Ukraine and tweeted, ‘We discussed humanitarian use case of how blockchain like Bitcoin/TRON can be implemented for Russian civilians who lack access to financial payment system.’ The tweet was later deleted. 

“(A spokesperson for the WTO said they were not aware of this event and thus had no comment. They also said the WTO has no right to bar any representative from meetings and they had no further comment.)”

E-commerce was a big issue at the Ministerial Conference. But if anyone watching (or reading) Sun’s statement was looking for signs of a proposal on cryptocurrency in the WTO, they would have been disappointed.

Just boring old stuff about Caribbean allies, the pandemic, and SIDS — small island developing states.


PS. On August 29, 2022, Swiss-German business newspaper Handelszeitung reported that the Swiss Government had withheld diplomatic status from Justin Sun. Contacted by this blog, the Swiss Foreign Ministry said it does not comment on individual cases.


Updates:
September 16, 2022 — adding the PS on Switzerland declining to give Justin Sun diplomatic status

Image credits:
Stars | Greg Rakozy, Unspalsh licence

Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?

The meaning of “success” is not the same for the Ministerial Conference’s organisers as it is for outsiders

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 9, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 12, 2022

How many times can a curtain go up and down? This is our second curtain-raiser for the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, now rescheduled for June 12–15, 2022.

As we wrote when the meeting was postponed in late 2021, the WTO risks disappearing into a chasm of petty procedural wrangling over what to talk about, and how to move forward.

After delays in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and more recently the threat to multilateralism posed by Russia, the fact of it happening at all will be taken as a success. But have WTO members been able to move closer to significant agreement on anything?

This time our curtain-raiser proposes some benchmarks for assessment. There’s even a scorecard at the end for anyone following along at home.

Continue reading “Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?”

WTO environment talks — official text with 70 members: China, US, Israel too

The post-Ministerial Conference “structured discussion” would only be among some members and would, follow a proposed timetable.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 5, 2021 | UPDATED DECEMBER 12, 2021

On November 4, the US reportedly announced it was joining other World Trade Organization (WTO) members in calling for “structured discussions” on trade, environment and sustainability — a fortnight after China reportedly did the same (on October 22).

This was confirmed on November 15, when the participants released the text as a public statement for the November 30–December 3 WTO Ministerial conference. By then Israel had also joined, bringing total participants to 57 WTO members. On December 3 a revision was circulated adding 13 new participants bringing the total to 70, but with no change to the main content.

With so much attention being paid to environmental issues, not least during the fortnight of the UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, agreeing on an innocuous text like this should be straightforward.

But it isn’t. Why? And why isn’t this automatically part of the work of the WTO’s Trade and Environment Committee?

Continue reading “WTO environment talks — official text with 70 members: China, US, Israel too”

Fisheries subsidies chair floats new text 15 days before ministers meet

Ministers challenged to drive talks forward politically as an advanced text on curbing harmful subsidies is now unlikely by July 15

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 30, 2021 | UPDATED JULY 15, 2021

Two weeks before ministers from World Trade Organization (WTO) members meet to discuss the latest in the negotiations to curb harmful fisheries subsidies, the chair circulated a revised draft text on June 30, showing a wide range of differences among members.

One of the most difficult subjects is still special treatment for developing countries, where the chair, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, is now proposing a “peace clause” — agreement that for a limited time, subsidies would not be challenged legally if they were for subsistence, artisanal and small-scale fishers in developing and least-developed countries.

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WTO agriculture talks 2021: where ambition and cynicism collide

Prospects and developments in the WTO agriculture negotiations in 2021

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 4, 2021 | UPDATED JULY 29, 2021

A strange atmosphere surrounds the agriculture talks in the World Trade Organization (WTO), which resumed on Friday February 5, 2021 and continued through to July, as members to submitted numerous new proposals on a wide range of issues. Consensus stays blocked, even on subjects that ought to be simple.

Continue reading “WTO agriculture talks 2021: where ambition and cynicism collide”

Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines

Farah Stockman’s ideas won’t work because they don’t ‘get’ the WTO

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 27, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 28, 2020

There’s a little anecdote on the World Trade Organization’s website, right at the start of “Understanding the WTO”. As the name suggests, “Understanding” is the principal explainer of how the WTO works. The anecdote goes:


Participants in a recent radio discussion on the WTO were full of ideas. The WTO should do this, the WTO should do that, they said.
     One of them finally interjected: “Wait a minute. The WTO is a table. People sit round the table and negotiate. What do you expect the table to do?”

If we keep that in mind as we read Farah Stockman’s New York Times opinion piece (“The W.T.O. Is Having a Midlife Crisis”, December 17, 2020), then it’s easier to see why so much of the piece is wrong.

Continue reading “Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines”