WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next

It might seem churlish to draw attention to what was lacking, but the achievements that were rightly hailed are not the end of the story.

See also
The successful WTO Conference saw one big failure: agriculture | Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’? | Our scorecards

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 30, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 30, 2022

As a beautiful sun rose over the World Trade Organization’s lakeside headquarters in Geneva on June 17, 2022, exhausted delegates sealed a package of decisions and declarations that would give the beleaguered WTO new direction for the next couple of years.

Much has already been written about the achievement of the 12–17 June WTO Ministerial Conference, after it was extended by almost two days of sometimes chaotic round-the-clock bargaining.

Most of the analysis focuses on what was achieved, often with a sense of relief that the WTO was back on track, mixed with a warning that much still needs to be done.

Perhaps the biggest success was that a package was agreed by ministers, including an Outcome Document — which the previous ministerial conference failed to do.

Often missing is recognition of how hard it was to achieve this limited outcome.

Continue reading “WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next”

How did the Ministerial Conference do? Our scorecards

There were a number of concrete results, which was a relief for many, but how significant are the outcomes?

By Robert Wolfe and Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 19, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 19, 2022

In our curtain-raiser before the June 12–17 World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference — “Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?” — we suggested a set of score cards for assessing the result. Based on the actual outcome, we’ve adjusted the scorecards slightly and filled them in.

The scorecards are in this note. It includes an invitation to comment


Updates: none so far

Image credit:
Delegates on the terrace at the WTO headquarters, Geneva, night of June 15, 2022 | WTO

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is beta-small-30x30-square-transparent.png

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?”

‘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?”

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”