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)”
Advertisement

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?”

Two last-minute agriculture proposals land as WTO conference approaches

Brazil submits first ever counter proposal from “non-demandeurs” on domestic support in public stockholding

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 3, 2022 (REPLACING THIS ORIGINAL PAGE) | UPDATED JUNE 3, 2022

Less than two weeks before the re-scheduled World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, two new proposals were circulated on May 31, 2022, on the most difficult subject in the agriculture negotiations — including the first from a “non-demandeur”.

The two proposals are from opposite sides on how to deal with domestic support in developing countries’ stockholding programmes for food security.

The debate in a meeting of WTO ambassadors two days later showed how far apart members still are on this with only 10 days to go before their ministers meet in Geneva. Members are now holding round-the-clock meetings to prepare for their June 12–15 Ministerial Conference

Continue reading “Two last-minute agriculture proposals land as WTO conference approaches”

Two last-minute agriculture proposals land as WTO conference approaches

Brazil submits first ever counter proposal from “non-demandeurs” on domestic support in public stockholding

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 1, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 1, 2022

Less than two weeks before the re-scheduled World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, two new proposals were circulated on the most difficult subject in the agriculture negotiations — including the first from “non-demandeurs”.

The two proposals are from opposite sides on how to deal with domestic support in developing countries’ stockholding programmes for food security.

… This has been updated and re-posted here

‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO

Not done yet, but the group-of-four could give the WTO some long-awaited success

Updates
June 17, 2022 — members agree on the waiver at the Ministerial Conference.

From mid-May to June 10 — members work on the compromise draft and discuss further revisions. The text submitted to the Ministerial Conference is here. Earlier versions are here.

May 19, 2022 — An informal meeting to take stock of two days of real negotiation on the compromise among about 30 delegations on May 16 and 18, described by chair Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone’s ambassador) as “arduous”.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged members on all sides to sort out their reservations over the proposed compromise, so that a deal on waiving some intellectual property protection for COVID-19 can be struck by the Jun 12-15 Ministerial Conference. See this Twitter thread.

May 3, 6 and 10, 2022 — The compromise text was finally put to the rest of the membership at a May 3 informal meeting — WTO news story, and the text (html or pdf) — and discussed in a May 6 formal intellectual property council meeting and in the General Council on May 10. Both bodies consist of the full WTO membership.

Members were non-committal about accepting or rejecting the text. But this compromise draft allowed them for the first time to agree broadly to start negotiating on a text in the search for a solution. None of the Quad presented the text as their own, just an attempt to secure an agreement.

See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and this earlier Twitter thread and WTO news story on the intellectual property council. The blog post below had been updated accordingly.

March 28, 2022 — Three of the “Quad” could still be consulting internally on whether to accept the compromise, according to Geneva trade sources.

South Africa is said to have told members in an informal General Council meeting on March 28 that the draft was still being discussed domestically. Only the EU is understood to have completed its internal processes and to have accepted the draft, while India and the United States had not yet confirmed their support for it.

The draft would still have to go to the full membership in the intellectual property council, but no date has been set for the council’s next meeting.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 17, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 17, 2022

Behind-the-scenes negotiations by four key members have raised the prospect of an agreement on intellectual property and the COVID-19 pandemic, which would also help lift the World Trade Organization out of one of its worst crises.


For nearly a year, the United States, […] has worked constructively with other WTO Members to facilitate discussions and bridge differences that might lead to […] consensus across the 164 Members of the World Trade Organization to help end the pandemic.

In the days ahead, […] we look forward to continuing our engagement with members of Congress and stakeholders as all WTO Members consider the text released by the WTO Director-General.

Statement by US ambassador to the WTO María Pagán, May 3, 2022

News broke in mid-March 2022 that the four — the EU, India, South Africa and the US — had agreed on a compromise text on waiving the obligation to protect intellectual property related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A slightly modified text was circulated to members on May 3, 2022. A cover letter from WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala summarised how the proposed compromise was negotiated.

Although members offered some initial reactions in meetings over the following week, it still had to be negotiated, agreed, and possibly amended by the WTO’s membership of 164. (See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and earlier this Twitter thread and this WTO news story on the intellectual property council.)

Anything can happen in that process, but so far the compromise has not been rejected outright — it has been accepted as a basis for negotiations. After all, most of those driving the main positions are among the four.

The likelihood of a breakthrough was first reported by Priti Patnaik of Geneva Health Files on March 11.

A month earlier she had broken news of what turns out to be an important part of the compromise — to limit the countries eligible to use the waiver. She reported that India and China would be excluded and that India would resist. How accurate that was at the time is unconfirmed, but the outcome would exclude China and not India.

What are the implications of the proposed compromise? How does it fit into the earlier debate about the waiver? How does it differ from the original proposal?

These are some immediate thoughts. Underlying them are two fundamental questions. Both, in totally different ways, are important:

  • What would this do for dealing with the pandemic?
  • What would this do for the WTO?

Some of the answers will emerge when the full membership gets down to negotiating the compromise in the WTO body responsible for intellectual property, the TRIPS Council. (TRIPS is trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.)

Continue reading “‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO”

8 reasons why countries disagree over a WTO intellectual property waiver

What the countries are saying — and it’s more than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the waiver

UPDATES

In February it was “no sign of a breakthrough”. By mid-March there were signs
More in: ‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO

The waiver was agreed at the Ministerial Conference on June 17, 2022. The final text is here.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 22, 2022 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 12, 2022

The deadlock in the World Trade Organization (WTO) over a proposal to waive intellectual property protection related to COVID-19 is now well into its second year with no sign of a breakthrough.

India and South Africa first made the proposal in October 2020. They produced a revised draft the following May, saying it was based on discussions in the months in between, but the revision produced little change in positions.

The proposal would temporarily waive countries’ obligations under WTO rules to protect some types of intellectual property, for products used to deal with COVID-19.

That’s the general idea. Every part of it is debated.

NEW: WHO’s African ‘hub-and-spokes’ vaccine technology set-up

Continue reading “8 reasons why countries disagree over a WTO intellectual property waiver”

WTO farm talks head into 2022 with lots of ‘will’ but not much ‘way’

The fate of the chair’s draft lies in the balance as members declare commitment to the talks but remain as divided as ever

UPDATE
May 19, 2022 informal negotiations meeting: in preparation for the re-scheduled Ministerial Conference: Twitter thread (food security, export restrictions, public stockholding, agriculture negotiations as a whole).

March 21, 2022 negotiations meeting: Twitter thread, WTO news story, chair’s statement on consultations (public stockholding, special safeguard mechanism, agriculture negotiations as a whole, including a proposed session on food security)

May 31, 2022: new draft texts circulated ahead of the June 12–15 re-scheduled Ministerial Conference.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 25, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 8, 2022

WTO agriculture negotiations started the year 2022 with members taking stock of where the talks were and how they might proceed, after a year of hard and intensive work that produced new proposals, but no change in fundamental, deadlocked positions.

The momentum had been created as negotiators strove to present common ground for the Ministerial Conference, scheduled for November 30–December 3, 2021, but postponed because of travel and other restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An informal negotiation meeting on January 24, 2022, cast doubt on the fate of the only attempt to reflect the current state of the talks in a single text, according to a trade official in Geneva — “to be or not to be”, the official said.

Continue reading “WTO farm talks head into 2022 with lots of ‘will’ but not much ‘way’”

No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver

Many delegations argued that ministers meeting online would not be able to break the deadlock

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 10, 2022 | UPDATED JANUARY 11, 2022

India’s call for an online WTO ministerial meeting to  discuss the proposed intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 fell well short of consensus at an informal General Council meeting today (January 10, 2022).

Many delegations countering that members would have to be much closer to agreement on the proposed waiver before a meeting of ministers would be able to contribute to a solution, said sources familiar with today’s discussion of just over two hours.

Continue reading “No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver”

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”