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 JUNE 21, 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.


Updates: none so far

Image credits:
Stars | Greg Rakozy, Unspalsh licence

‘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 JUNE 18, 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”

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”

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?”

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”

The WTO is regularly in crisis, but this time could be different

The WTO Ministerial Conference is almost upon us. The chorus of calls for “WTO reform” puts too much emphasis on Geneva when the real solutions require fundamental changes in and between the capitals of its 164 members.

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 Ministerial Conference had been “postponed indefinitely” on November 26, four days before it was due to start, as Switzerland tightened travel restrictions because of the new omicron COVID-19 variant

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED OCTOBER 30 AND NOVEMBER 26, 2021 | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY COSMOPOLITAN GLOBALIST SEPTEMBER 28, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

On December 8, 2019, The New York Times predicted the possible “end of the […] World Trade Organization itself.” Earlier, a Bloomberg headline spoke of a “fatal blow” to the WTO.

Two years later, the WTO is still up and running. Even the crisis in dispute settlement, where first-stage rulings can no longer be appealed — the cause of those doom-mongering news reports — has failed to stop it.

Yet the WTO does face serious problems. Dealing with them has become more urgent.

This piece was originally published in September. We are now only days away from when WTO ministers are due to meet in Geneva, where “WTO reform” is a major item on the agenda.

We have heard various upbeat statements from events like the G20 trade ministers’ October 12 meeting in Sorrento, the G7 ministers in London 10 days later, the optimistic sounds coming from Geneva, and apparently a new signal from Washington.


A cacophony of cans being kicked down the road

As the November 30–December 3 Ministerial Conference approached, activity increased, including from some ministers.

The US strengthened its call to talk.

Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng visited Geneva to rally delegations to produce “concrete outcomes on key initiatives” at the Ministerial Conference. She met the Ottawa Group of members working on WTO reform, the WTO director-general, the chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, ambassadors from India, South Africa, EU and Mauritius, and the US chargé d’affaires.

Nevertheless, the only likely deal to be struck is on services regulation among a small group of members. We are also told a last-minute WTO-wide breakthrough on fisheries subsidies might be possible — after 20 years of negotiation and at least one missed deadline. In reality a lot of difficult issues still remain at the last minute.

Aside from those two subjects, we remain sceptical that anything substantial will be delivered.

Continue reading or jump down the page to:
Round the clock activity | No stranger to crisis | The misunderstood role of the WTO | Dispute settlement | The real problem: low priority | ‘Reform’ and the ministerial conference | Two strands of WTO reform | Find out more

See also: Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward

Continue reading “The WTO is regularly in crisis, but this time could be different”

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?”