Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic

Members unable to endorse David Walker’s draft ministerial declaration

Updates
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
POSTED NOVEMBER 26, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 20, 2022

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.

Continue reading “Postponed WTO conference saves delegates from grappling with declaration on pandemic”

Optimism v pessimism: what to make of Katherine Tai’s Geneva speech

‘If you will listen to us, we will listen to you, and let’s start the reform process from there.’ But was USTR Tai being disingenuous?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 21, 2021 | UPDATED OCTOBER 21, 2021

The reaction among experts to US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s speech in Geneva on October 14, 2021, has been mixed, some welcoming the optimistic tone, others disappointed at the lack of specifics.

“Unpopular take: Tai’s Geneva speech was actually quite good and clarifying at this stage,” said one privately. “I heard her as being noncommittal but also not prejudging.”

“Sorry I’m with the pessimists on the Tai speech, if nine months into a US administration the best that can be offered is that something might be considered in the future,” said another.

Continue reading “Optimism v pessimism: what to make of Katherine Tai’s Geneva speech”

WTO COVID-19 waiver: does the new draft move the talks forward?

A closer examination—paragraph by paragraph—of the re-draft shows how little has changed and how much may still lie ahead

UPDATE
‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO
March 2022. This leads to the compromise decision, June 17, 2022, at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva

THE DISCUSSIONS IN THE WTO
An overview of the discussion to February 2022 is in 8 reasons why countries disagree over a WTO intellectual property waiver
An earlier summary of how members responded to this text is in a box at the end, along with an example of the chairman’s report to the General Council.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 25, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 20, 2022

The long-awaited revised proposal related to the COVID-19 pandemic, to waive obligations on intellectual property protection, was finally circulated to members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 25, 2021.

This will allow the first negotiations to proceed in the WTO’s intellectual property council since the US swung behind the idea of a waiver, if not necessarily in the form proposed. (The council’s official name is the TRIPS Council — for “trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights”.)

A closer examination of the contents shows that a lot may still have to be negotiated. In other words, this is not just about accepting or rejecting the waiver — to waive or not to waive. What is in the text and what is left out are all significant. We can expect some rough times ahead.

Continue reading “WTO COVID-19 waiver: does the new draft move the talks forward?”

Voting in the WTO? It won’t happen

Why nothing has changed on voting in the WTO, and why it would destroy the WTO if it happened

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 19, 2021 | UPDATED MARCH 25, 2022

Suddenly people are talking about voting in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Again.

Only a few months ago it was suggested as a way to break the deadlock in selecting the new director-general.

Thankfully that was settled when the new Biden administration flipped the US’s position and backed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

After that, it was about the proposal to waive intellectual property obligations in the WTO related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then it re-emerged over actions that might be taken in the WTO against Russia for invading Ukraine.

After the appointment of Okonjo-Iweala was settled, it was the US’s change of heart over the intellectual property waiver that encouraged new calls for a vote, although activists were talking about it almost as soon as the waiver was mooted. They looked at the rules, saw voting was an option, and concluded this was the best way to overcome resistance.

Continue reading “Voting in the WTO? It won’t happen”

One to watch: Bolivia’s bid to import a Canadian COVID-19 vaccine

Multiple tests: Will Canada respond? Is the WTO system too cumbersome? Is this a better route than waiving intellectual property rights?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 12, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 12, 2021

News broke late yesterday (May 11, 2021) that a Canadian company, Biolyse Pharma, had agreed to supply Bolivia with 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine for COVID-19, without the patent-owner’s permission.

But the deal cannot go ahead until the Canadian government issues a “compulsory licence” for Biolyse Pharma to make the vaccine in Canada and export it to Bolivia.

Although the objective is to get a cheaper version of the vaccine to a developing country — Bolivia — a lot of the focus will be on Canada, which now holds the key.

Continue reading “One to watch: Bolivia’s bid to import a Canadian COVID-19 vaccine”

The proposed COVID-19 intellectual property waiver: too soon to predict

Will the US prevail? What actually lies ahead? How long will it take? And if the waiver is agreed, what impact will it have?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 7, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 6, 2022

It’s tempting to conclude that the proposed waiver on World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic will swiftly be agreed now that the US is supporting it.

It’s also tempting to assume that if the waiver is agreed, then intellectual property on vaccines and other COVID-19 products will be freely available and in use around the world.

Neither of those will necessarily happen, and almost certainly not quickly.

Continue reading “The proposed COVID-19 intellectual property waiver: too soon to predict”

New WTO head’s first statements sail close to the wind

Okonjo-Iweala faces a crash course in WTO diplomacy, a car crash, or a third way. Which will it be?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 18, 2021 | UPDATED MARCH 2, 2021

‘Someone has said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing you’ve done for years.” So remarked Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala shortly after she was accepted as the World Trade Organization’s next director-general on February 15, 2021.

She was speaking in an online press conference, outlining her view of where the WTO might be heading and how she might contribute.

Her first statements shed light on her intentions at the WTO and signal possible delicate times ahead. With some forthright suggestions on issues where members are divided, her approach has risks. (See also her acceptance statement in the WTO General Council.)

Continue reading “New WTO head’s first statements sail close to the wind”

WTO farm talks: from COVID-19 into 2021. 1 Pertinent questions

Lessons from the pandemic for WTO work on agricultural trade and support. Part 1

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 31, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 31, 2020

In this 3-part series (plus one):

1. The pertinent questions | 2. What’s been happening inside and outside the WTO | 3. Policy responses: from confidence-building to a work programme | (Plus: References)

Based on, with updates,
Chapter 20 (“Lessons from the pandemic for WTO work on agricultural trade and support”) in the CEPR e-book “Revitalising Multilateralism: Pragmatic Ideas for the New WTO Director-General” edited by Richard Baldwin and Simon Evenett

For once, this might be a good time to rethink how agriculture is handled in the WTO, with hope of some success after years of going nowhere. The need to respond to the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to examine where the trade rules help or hinder sound policies.

That also requires an understanding of what trade rules do and do not do — WTO rules are not prescriptions.

This is the first part of a series on lessons from the pandemic for agriculture in the WTO and the prospects for the coming year.

It kicks the series off by examining the context and the often-misunderstood framework of what the WTO does and does not do before moving on to the issues. There’s no point in calling for actions that are outside the WTO’s remit.

Continue reading “WTO farm talks: from COVID-19 into 2021. 1 Pertinent questions”

WTO farm talks: from COVID-19 into 2021. 2 What’s been happening

Lessons from the pandemic for WTO work on agricultural trade and support. Part 2

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 31, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 31, 2020

In this 3-part series (plus one):

1. The pertinent questions | 2. What’s been happening inside and outside the WTO | 3. Policy responses: from confidence-building to a work programme | (Plus: References)

Based on, with updates,
Chapter 20 (“Lessons from the pandemic for WTO work on agricultural trade and support”) in the CEPR e-book “Revitalising Multilateralism: Pragmatic Ideas for the New WTO Director-General” edited by Richard Baldwin and Simon Evenett

Fears that the pandemic would lead to a flood of export restrictions and other disruptive policies have proved to be largely unfounded. The main impact has been from travel restrictions and other measures aimed directly at preventing the disease from spreading.

This is the second part of the series on lessons from the pandemic for agriculture in the WTO, and prospects for 2021. It looks at what’s been happening inside and outside the organisation, before continuing on to possible work ahead.

Continue reading “WTO farm talks: from COVID-19 into 2021. 2 What’s been happening”

WTO farm talks: from COVID-19 into 2021. 3 Trust and understanding

Lessons from the pandemic for WTO work on agricultural trade and support. Part 3

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 31, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 21, 2021

In this 3-part series (plus one):

1. The pertinent questions | 2. What’s been happening inside and outside the WTO | 3. Policy responses: from confidence-building to a work programme | (Plus: References)

Based on, with updates,
Chapter 20 (“Lessons from the pandemic for WTO work on agricultural trade and support”) in the CEPR e-book “Revitalising Multilateralism: Pragmatic Ideas for the New WTO Director-General” edited by Richard Baldwin and Simon Evenett

It may seem strange to start an examination of WTO policy responses by discussing process. But paying attention to it might be necessary to break out of the current rut and to actually end up with agreement.

JUMP TO
Process
Towards a work programme
Export restrictions
Domestic support | Green Box | Amber Box
Market access
Labour
Conclusion

This is the third and final part of the series on lessons from the pandemic for agriculture in the WTO. This part looks at what might be achieved in the short term, and how.

The main emphasis is “in the WTO” because a lot of the ideas floating around are outside the WTO’s role. We might think they are “good ideas” (or we might not), but there’s not much point in pushing them in the WTO if the WTO is irrelevant.

Continue reading “WTO farm talks: from COVID-19 into 2021. 3 Trust and understanding”