Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference

WTO members have more time to deal with issues that they might, at a pinch, agree on, but momentum could be lost too

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

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED DECEMBER 6, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

What was lost by postponing the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference? Procedurally, not much. What happens next depends on whether WTO members make the best of the opportunity.

Before the conference was scheduled to start, we argued that the solutions to the impasse in the WTO must come from the capitals of the WTO’s 164 members before anything significant can be done at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters — in effect: “reform in capitals before reforming the WTO in Geneva”.

We still think that, but at least momentum has been created in some governments. The danger is that this opportunity will be lost.

Continue reading “Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference”
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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”

NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?

If only the authors had read the minutes to see what WTO members are actually saying

BEFORE I BEGIN
I know. This is asking for trouble. Commenting critically on the letter will trigger accusations (again) that I am an “enemy” of the “TRIPS waiver” and happy to see people die from the pandemic. Neither is true.

For those who believe outright that the WTO is evil and that intellectual property protection is its devilish handmaiden, there is no point in reading this. They are immune to complexity and facts. Sadly, too much of the NGO letter adopts that tone.

But if we are interested in looking beyond the rhetoric at what is really happening between countries in the WTO, then the letter misses its target. A few delegations may use it as a weapon in the debate. Others, rather than being persuaded by the letter, will simply dismiss it on the grounds that “they don’t know what they are talking about”, particularly on what the reality is in the WTO.

On one point I agree with the letter: the complaint about reduced facilities for non-governmental organisations at WTO ministerial conferences. The more access they have, the better informed they will be.

(Note this now has a link to David Walker’s November 22, 2021 draft)

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 23, 2021 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 26, 2021

Two weeks before the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, over 80 non-governmental organisations wrote to WTO director-general Nogozi Okonjo-Iweala and all WTO members, slamming “sham” work on trade and COVID-19 at the expense of poorer countries.

The letter (full text below) also opposed current moves to reform the way the WTO works, particularly the increased use of negotiations among subsets of the membership when consensus is elusive among the full membership.

The endorsing organisations include some international heavyweights such as Amnesty and Oxfam, alongside a long list of national groups — health, poverty-alleviation and environmental campaigners, labour unions and more.

Their strongly-worded attack lands direct hits on two issues that are important for Okonjo-Iweala herself.

It also misrepresents how many developing countries see their own interests on these subjects. It has failed to look properly at what is actually going on, what countries themselves have said, and it condemns processes that many developing countries consider to be essential.

Continue reading “NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?”

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

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.

Continue reading “Dire WTO General Council meeting shows scale of Okonjo-Iweala’s task”

US lifts objections that deadlocked the WTO over its next director-general

‘Troika’ had announced Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala enjoyed broadest support, but US had refused to join consensus

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 28, 2020 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 15, 2021


On February 15, 2021, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was confirmed as the World Trade Organization’s next director-general. The decision was by a consensus of the WTO’s membership. See Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the new WTO chief, but let’s not get carried away.

This was made possible 10 days earlier when the new Biden administration in the US announced its “strong support” for her, ending three months of deadlock.

By then, South Korean candidate Yoo Myung-hee
withdrew her candidacy. By overturning the stance of the Trump administration and its US Trade Representative, Robert LIghthizer, Biden paved the way for Okonjo-Iweala to be selected by the necessary consensus.

What follows was written before the deadlock was broken.

Continue reading “US lifts objections that deadlocked the WTO over its next director-general”

The 20-year saga of the WTO agriculture negotiations

The talks stumble along but what has been achieved is more significant than is generally realised, thanks partly to some remarkable New Zealanders

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 23, 2020 | UPDATED OCTOBER 26, 2020

On this day 20 years ago — March 23, 2000 — negotiators met at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva to kick off new agriculture negotiations. Two decades later, the talks struggle weakly on, amid pessimism that any significant breakthrough will be possible in the foreseeable future.

And yet at a modest level, more has been achieved than many people realise. Some will be surprised that the talks are continuing at all.

Continue reading “The 20-year saga of the WTO agriculture negotiations”

A bit of bother down at the WTO court — Why? And is it a killer? Long read

WTO dispute settlement is in trouble, but it can struggle on at least for a while. So can the organisation’s other important functions

This looks at the WTO Appellate Body crisis in some depth.
A simpler version is here
.
See also:
How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement and The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead


Skip the updates

UPDATES

January 26, 2022 — Brazil moved to authorise (under Brazilian law) unilateral action against countries that lose in a panel ruling and appeal “into the void” to leave a dispute inconclusive.

Legal opinion seems to be that this could violate WTO rules, but so long as the Appellate Body was unable to function, Brazil could also appeal “into the void” any legal challenge in the WTO. “In the absence of the Appellate Body, this does not seem totally bonkers,” tweeted law professor Geert Van Calster

News of the move came from Tatiana Palermo, President of Palermo Strategic Consulting and a former Brazilian vice-minister and negotiator, who tweeted:

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has signed an executive order allowing #Brazil to retaliate unilaterally ([including] suspending IPR [intellectual property rights] obligations) in cases where the losing party appealed the #WTO panel ruling into the void & continues with unfair trade practices.”

The executive order is here, in Portuguese.


October 26, 2021 — María Pagán, the Biden administration’s nominee ambassador to the WTO, told a US Senate Finance Committee hearing on her nomination that the US does want to “restore the Appellate Body”, a point that had never been clarified since the Trump administration blocked the appointment of appeals judges:

I think there’s consensus that the WTO, and particularly the Appellate Body, need to be reformed. I guess on the other hand, we all have different views of what reform means, and particularly with respect to the Appellate Body. What we want, and if confirmed what I will work hard to do, is to have conversations so that we can restore the Appellate Body and the dispute settlement system to what we thought we had agreed to.”

To underscore that this is an official position, Henry Hodge, spokesperson of the Office of the US Trade Representative, tweeted Bloomberg’s story on the statement with the headline “Biden’s nominee to WTO wants to restore Appellate-Body function.”

Pagán’s remark came on the day the US blocked the appointment of appeals judges for the 47th time at a WTO meeting in Geneva. It was the first sign of any new thinking in Washington. But it was too late for anything to happen in time for the November 30 to December 3 Ministerial Conference.

Trade lawyer Simon Lester said the remark is “positive” but that restoring the system “to what we thought we had agreed to” may prove to be “tricky”, a point Pagán herself acknowledged.


By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 21, 2019 | UPDATED JANUARY 29, 2022

A casual glance at the headlines might have misled us into thinking the World Trade Organization (WTO) would grind to a halt at the end 2019, that the blame lay entirely with US President Donald Trump, and that the WTO’s demise would bring anarchy to world trade.

Only the last of those three assertions is possibly correct; and only if the WTO really does die — which it certainly won’t, not in the near future.

This is an attempt at an explanation. It shows that even WTO dispute settlement could well survive, but in a less powerful form. Other important work in the WTO will continue, and therefore so will the WTO itself.

But be warned: simple explanations of complex issues cannot tell the whole story. And even this attempt is not that simple. Sorry.

Continue reading “A bit of bother down at the WTO court — Why? And is it a killer? Long read”

By Christmas 2019 the WTO was supposed to be dead — why wasn’t it? A short explanation

Reports of the WTO’s demise are premature. Yes, dispute settlement is in trouble, but even that can hobble on

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 21, 2019 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 13, 2021

This short explanation skims the surface of some pretty complicated issues. If you want more detail, with more links and references,
then try this longer version
.
See also:
How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement and The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead


Update:
Brazil moves to act unilaterally, and the Biden administration signals for the first time it is willing to discuss restoring the Appellate Body

The doom-mongers had already written off the WTO. From December no new appeals in WTO disputes would be possible and the whole organisation would grind to a halt, they claimed. They were wrong.

The problem is with the appeals stage of WTO legal disputes. Some countries are finding ways to work around that. WTO disputes cannot be the same without a properly functioning Appellate Body, but they can continue even if the system is weaker.

As for the rest of the WTO’s work, it does not rely on dispute settlement. True, member countries participate in those functions more confidently if they know the disputes system is working well, but it will still take years before they lose confidence so badly that they give up on the WTO altogether.

Continue reading “By Christmas 2019 the WTO was supposed to be dead — why wasn’t it? A short explanation”