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?”

‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated

“I have seen first-hand members’ collective commitment and dedication. … I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced a meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies by MC12”

See “Update on WTO fisheries subsidies talks”,
including the drafts the chair sent to the rescheduled Ministerial Conference on June 10, 2022 and the final agreement

By Peter Ungphakorn

The chair of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations circulated a new draft agreement on November 8, 2021, saying “I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced a meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies” by the Ministerial Conference at the end of this month.

“The eyes of the world are really on us,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told ambassadors at the negotiations meeting where the new text was introduced.

“Time is short and I believe that this text reflects a very important step toward a final outcome. I really see a significant rebalancing of the provisions, including those pertaining to special and differential treatment, while, at the same time, maintaining the level of ambition.”

The new draft is the sixth compiled and circulated by the chair, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, since June 2020, the last three released as public documents since May this year.

It is based on negotiations since September and was presented to a meeting of heads of delegations (usually ambassadors) of the WTO’s 164 members.

Continue reading “‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated”

Optimism after WTO ministers meet on fisheries subsidies, despite splits

Did ministers bring real hope to the WTO fish subsidies talks or are WTO leaders clutching at straws?

By Peter Ungphakorn

Update: As the talks resumed after the summer break and headed for the year-end Ministerial Conference, there was little sign of any compromise on the outstanding issues.

India circulated a new proposal (not public) calling for a 25-year exemption from overfishing subsidy prohibitions for developing countries not engaged in distant water fishing. A number of delegations complained in a session on September 24 that this and other ideas in the proposal “had no element that could help bring about a compromise between members” (Amiti Sen in Hindu Business Line, September 26, 2021).

See more updates, as negotiators go through the chair’s draft line by line almost daily in October 2021.

The two people managing the negotiations on fisheries subsidies in the World Trade Organization (WTO) said they were more confident that an agreement can be reached after 104 ministers or their representatives participated in an online meeting on July 15, 2021.

“This is the closest we have ever come towards reaching an outcome — a high-quality outcome that would contribute to building a sustainable blue economy,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the ministers at the end of the meeting.

“The prospect for a deal in the autumn ahead of our Ministerial Conference has clearly improved,” she said.

The next Ministerial Conference — the WTO’s top decision-making body — meets from November 30 to December 3 this year

Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, who chairs the negotiations, echoed Okonjo-Iweala. He told a press conference afterwards that he was also more optimistic that an agreement can be reached in time.

But some of the statements that have been made public, with some reading between the lines, show that major differences still remain.

Continue reading “Optimism after WTO ministers meet on fisheries subsidies, despite splits”

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.

Continue reading “Fisheries subsidies chair floats new text 15 days before ministers meet”

New WTO fisheries subsidies text published as talks head for endgame

Colombian chair says special treatment for developing countries is the most difficult issue

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 11, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 13,2021

Santiago Wills, chair of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, announced the start of a new phase in the talks on May 11, 2021 with a revised text released publicly for the first time, and accelerated talks leading to an end-game meeting of ministers on July 15.

The latest revision is “a crucial step for presenting a clean draft to ministers,” said Wills, who is also Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO. The latest version includes portions in square brackets, usually indicating disagreement among members.

The 9-page new text is here, with a 26-page explanation from the chair. See also this WTO news story

Continue reading “New WTO fisheries subsidies text published as talks head for endgame”

Update on WTO fisheries subsidies talks

Links to some key documents and news

By Peter Ungphakorn

The drive for a WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies accelerated in 2021 and eventually led to a slightly stripped down agreement at the Geneva Ministerial Conference in June 2022.

The first target had been missed to conclude all or most of the subject by July 2021, but the aim was still for a formal agreement to be struck at the ministerial conference at the end of the year. That was postponed, and negotiators headed into 2022 aiming to conclude as quickly as possible. Agreement was achieved on June 17, 2022.

Updates will be added here for the latest developments, with links to new documents and news items.

June 17, July 13, 2022— WTO members agree on the final fisheries subsidies text (see also identical draft sent to ministers). Article 5, originally on “subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing”, is stripped down to brief provisions on “other subsidies”. The agreement would terminate after four years of entering into force if “comprehensive disciplines are not adopted”, unless the General Council agrees to extend it.

A cover page accompanying the agreement is a protocol, ie, a legal instrument for adding the agreement to the WTO rule book as an amendment annexed to the WTO Agreement. A document certifying that the protocol is a “certified true copy” was circulated on July 13.

The agreement now goes to members to ratify (“accept”) it. It enters into force in the ratifying countries after their number has passed two-thirds of the membership. It does not enter into force in countries that have not ratified it. See explanation.

Photo of Wills on the phone during all an all night session
All-round praise: Santiago Wills’ handling of the fisheries subsidies agreement received acclaim at the Ministerial Conference | WTO

June 10, 2022 — Chair Santiago Wills submitted his latest draft to the June 12–15 Ministerial Conference, “without prejudice to any Member’s positions or views, whether or not reflected herein”. Attached was a 23-page explanatory note. He told delegations:

“I am very pleased to say that, this evening, I finished working on a revised draft of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies which has been sent to ministers for their consideration at [the Ministerial Conference]. In some places the draft text is my best attempt to suggest an outcome that I think is most likely to attract consensus. In some areas I am delighted to say it is not my work at all. Instead, the text presented came from groups of members with very different starting positions and who, working together, resolved their differences and presented to the plenary a text they could all accept.

“Overall, the draft Agreement sent to ministers this evening represents my best and honest effort at presenting to them a draft that is as clean as possible with only a few decisions for them to focus on, negotiate, and agree. After over 20 years, it is long past time for the WTO to deliver on its promise to agree to rules that will stop subsidies for illegal and excessive fishing.”

May 20, 2022 — At the end of five days of negotiations, the chair, Santiago Wills briefed the media on progress made and the on remaining differences, and called for agreement on the text in the week of May 30, 2022. His statement to the media is here. See also this Twitter thread, and the WTO website news story.

April 7, 2022 — “In Focus: A Draft WTO Agreement to Curb Harmful Fisheries Subsidies”, a 10-minute video explanation of the draft by Alice Tipping and IISD

February 15, 2022 — “From these various consultations, I got the general sense that members are interested in using the current period to continue trying to make progress toward concluding the negotiations as soon as possible,” the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia told an informal meeting. (Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations reports on consultations with members, WTO news story)

December 10, 2021Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations outlines next steps for work in the new year (WTO news story) Fisheries subsidies negotiations aim to conclude as quickly as possible in the new year, the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia reported.

November 26, 2021WTO General Council decides to postpone Ministerial Conference indefinitely (WTO news story)

November 24, 2021 — revised 9-page draft (WT/MIN(21)/W/5) and 18-page explanation (WT/MIN(21)/W/5/Add.1) issued as official ministerial documents. See also this WTO news story, including statements by the chair. One issue seems to be settled: it’s proposed as an “agreement”

November 18, 2021If ‘fisheries subsidies’ is agreed by WTO ministers, what then? The implications of the next procedural steps are little known. This could still take some time

November 8, 2021‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated, including chair’s statement for media. Links to the chair’s revised 8-page draft (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.2) and 20-page explanation (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.2/Add.1). See also this WTO news story

October 29, 2021 — The WTO website reports a possible breakthrough, but gives no details. Talks chair Santiago Wills says:

“I continue to have a strong sense of optimism that we will conclude these negotiations, notwithstanding the differences that we still need to bridge. The next few weeks will not be easy as this is the time to bridge those differences. I will be continuing to reach out to different members in different configurations, to listen carefully and to prepare the ground as much as possible for MC12 [the November 30–December 3 Ministerial Conference].”

October 4–5, 2021 — As negotiators worked through the chair’s draft, there were signs that transparency might be a compromise alternative to banning fuel subsidies that are not directly for fishing (India’s new proposal; EU willing to consider). But members remain divided on (1) transparency from developing countries although the African Group suggested technical assistance to achieve this might help, and (2) the US proposal for countries to supply information on use of forced labour.

Members remained blocked on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing — how to determine fishing is IUU, and whether prohibitions should apply only to IUU boats or to whole fleets containing IUU boats.

Daily meetings are scheduled for October 11–29, going through the draft line by line.

See also WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies hit “dark” patch, SeafoodSource, October 8, 2021

September 24, 2021 — Negotiators discussed new papers from India and the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) countries (with the African Group), with little sign of movement towards compromise. Several delegations said India’s proposal was not oriented towards a solution and “had no element that could help bring about a compromise between members” (see Amiti Sen in Hindu Business Line, September 26, 2021).

August 30, 2021WTO members gear up for marathon fishing subsidy negotiations starting September (WTO website)

Continue reading “Update on WTO fisheries subsidies talks”