On the heels of political bargaining by major powers and corporate lobbyists at the COP26 climate conference, similar maneuvers are shaping up to be the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is set to begin in Geneva on November 30. Going to do.
The decision to hold an individual negotiating conference of ministers from 164 countries amid a pandemic, and as Europe sees another boom, is controversial.
In addition to concerns about security, there are serious questions about the legality of decisions to be made under these terms, including the expected absence of many trade ministers, mainly from developing countries.
Ministers who are not operating any commercial flights from their countries may be unable to travel. Those who can participate face difficult and costly transit and quarantine arrangements. The size of delegations has been severely limited to facilitate social distancing and reduce processing queues.
Currently, only a few vaccines, used mainly in wealthy countries, will secure a pass for automatic entry into meeting places. Ministers and officials using non-EU-approved vaccines will be subject to periodic testing.
Disagreement is also tightening the noose. Swiss authorities have refused authorization – sought by one of their own lawmakers – for five protesters to hold placards for actions on COVID-19 in front of the WTO building. NGOs, an important resource for delegations from many developing countries, have been denied space at the main venue.
WTO in crisis
All of this is bad enough for a “member driven organization” that makes decisions by consensus. But this conference is shaping up to be the most important in 26 years of the WTO. It is widely agreed that the organization is facing an existential crisis. Every single one of its main functions – negotiations, dispute settlement, notifications – is broken.
The Doha “Development” Round of talks launched in 2001 promised poor countries a rebalancing of global trade rules designed by and for powerful countries and their corporations. But the Doha Round has been moribund for more than a decade.
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At the last ministerial conference four years ago, self-selected groups of members led by wealthy countries, including New Zealand and Australia, announced that they were introducing alternative “multilateral” procedures to bypass the WTO’s consensus-based multilateral process – without any mandate. Therefore. They plan to legalize those procedures in MC12.
Furthermore, the dispute settlement system of the WTO, which is considered the jewel in its crown, is crippled. The US has refused to approve new appointments to the WTO’s appellate body unless other members agree to its demands for reform. The appointment of the last judge ended in November 2020.
Members of the more powerful WTO have a raft of other demands. These include severely reducing the number of “developing” countries entitled to special and differential treatment, changes to mechanisms to monitor compliance, and other institutional arrangements.
These fractures have become cracks in recent years and COVID-19 has turned matters on a head.
Sixty-four developing countries have proposed a temporary relaxation of rules in the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that guarantees Big Pharma’s rights on COVID-related vaccines and technologies. The exemption is necessary to supply the affordable generic versions to the 98% of people in low-income countries who have not yet been fully vaccinated.
A recent Oxfam report estimated that Pfizer and Moderna are expected to take in a combined US$93 billion next year on sales of vaccines developed with significant public subsidies.
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The EU, UK and Switzerland are leading the opposition, supported by their pharmaceutical industries. New Zealand supports a limited edition of the exemption, but its ambassador to the World Trade Organization, David Walker, is leading a parallel initiative that undermines it.
Walker was assigned by the Director-General, and not by WTO members, to facilitate a COVID-19 recovery plan. The “Walker Process” has been heavily criticized for marginalizing the priorities of the least developed and developing countries. This has a real potential to negatively affect New Zealand’s reputation with those countries in the WTO.
The proposed Declaration and Action Plan, drawn up on Walker’s “own responsibility”, have not been developed through the normal process of WTO negotiations. Unusually, the text was not introduced at the General Council meeting on 22 November. This meant that members could not discuss (or deny) it, although it has since leaked.
hope for a better system
Critics protest that Walker’s proposal is too skewed toward the interests of wealthy countries and that it uses COVID-19 as a backdoor to promote greater liberalization, which is led by the “Ottawa Group” of countries, including New Zealand. Reflects on the WTO reform agenda being upgraded. and Australia. Walker has denied the inclusion of exemptions or other changes to the WTO’s intellectual property rules.
Read more: Big barriers to global vaccination: Patent rights, national self-interest and the money gap
As the MC12 is primed for performance on all these and other issues, the strategies being adopted by the New Zealand and Australian governments to keep the WTO on life support are counterproductive.
Even if some of the conference participants manage to reach agreement on the Final Declaration – which they were not included in the previous ministerial conference in 2017 – its more to address the organization’s systemic failures. The refusal of powerful members ensured that it would continue its spiraling decline.
Longtime critics of the WTO hope it may eventually open the door to re-imagining a new, more equitable international trade regime that can address the challenges of the 21st century exposed by the pandemic.