GENEVA (AFP) – The World Trade Organization (WTO) chief voiced cautious optimism yesterday as global trade ministers gather to tackle food security threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, overfishing and equitable access to COVID vaccines.
Speaking just hours before the opening of the WTO’s first ministerial meeting in nearly five years, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged that “the road will be bumpy and rocky, there may be a few landmines on the way.”
But she told journalists she was “cautiously optimistic that we’ll get one or two deliverables”, adding she would consider that “a success”.
With its first ministerial meeting in years, the WTO faces pressure to finally eke out long-sought trade deals and show unity amid the still raging pandemic and an impending global hunger crisis.
Top of the agenda at the four-day meeting is the toll Russia’s war in Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket that feeds hundreds of millions of people, is having on food security.
European Union trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the bloc had been “working hard with all the members to prepare a multilateral food security package”, and slammed Russia for “using food and grain as a weapon of war”.
The WTO is hoping to keep criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine to the first day of talks, when many of the more than 100 ministers due to attend are expected to issue blistering statements.
But with many flatly refusing to negotiate directly with Moscow, there are fears this could bleed into the following days, when the WTO wants to focus on nailing down elusive trade deals. “There is a real risk that things could go off the rails next week,” a Geneva-based diplomatic source said.
The tensions have not curbed Okonjo-Iweala’s zeal to press for agreements on a range of issues during the first ministerial gathering on her watch, especially as the global trade body strives to prove its worth after nearly a decade with no new large trade deals.
There is cautious optimism that countries could finally agree on banning subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, after more than 20 years of negotiations.
The WTO says talks have never been this close to the finish line, but diplomats remain cautious.
The negotiations “have made progress recently, but these remain difficult subjects”, a diplomatic source in Geneva told AFP.
One of the main sticking points has been so-called special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing countries, like major fishing nation India, which can request exemptions.
A draft text sent to the ministers for review proposes exemptions should not apply to member states accounting for an as yet undefined share of the global volume of fishing.
The duration of exemptions also remains undefined.
Environmental groups say anything beyond 10 years would be catastrophic. India has demanded a 25-year exemption.
“Twenty-five years is an unreasonable length of time,” head of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ project to end harmful fisheries subsidies Isabel Jarrett, told AFP, warning so much leeway would be “devastating for fish stocks”.