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WTO talks extended in bid to seal elusive deals

AFP – The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) ministerial conference will run over into a fifth day today in the hope of striking thus-far elusive deals on fishing subsidies, food security and combatting COVID-19.

The gathering of trade ministers at the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva wrapped up yesteday, with the global trade body hoping to conclude landmark deals to prove it still has a role to play in tackling big global challenges.

But WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has staked her leadership on breathing new life into the sclerotic organisation, said it seemed remaining sticking points could be resolved if ministers ploughed on.

The gathering is the first WTO ministerial conference in nearly five years. The global trade body only takes decisions by consensus among its 164 members.

“It requires that we work harder and work nights, whatever it takes,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “It is really time for ministers to make the requisite decisions that need to be made.”

She said countries “feel that we really can cross the line on some of these things if we gave it a bit more time”.

The former finance and foreign minister of Nigeria, who took office in March 2021, is keen to make the WTO a relevant player on the international stage.

Nigerian Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, (L), and MC12 Chair, Timur Suleimenov, during the opening ceremony of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12). PHOTO: AFP

The last WTO ministerial conference, in December 2017 in Buenos Aires, was widely considered a flop, closing without a major agreement.

Okonjo-Iweala was hoping to pull off a coup by securing a long-sought deal on curbing harmful fishing subsidies.

Negotiations towards banning subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of the planet’s fish stocks have been going on at the WTO for more than two decades.

The mood music on Monday was that a deal was now closer than ever. But India threw a spanner in the works late Tuesday, insisting it would not sign up without a 25-year exemption – far longer than many are comfortable with.

“The transition period of 25 years sought by India is not intended as a permanent carve-out.

It is a must-have for us and for other similarly placed non-distant water fishing countries,” Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said in a statement.

“Without agreeing to the 25-year transition period, it will be impossible for us to finalise the negotiations. This is completely unacceptable! And that is the reason India is opposed to the current text.”

Besides fisheries, the WTO conference is trying to strike deals on e-commerce, agriculture, food security, COVID-19 vaccine patents, the WTO’s response to pandemics, and reform of the organisation itself.

But some emerging from the negotiating rooms are pointing the finger at Indian intransigence on not just fisheries but on every topic.

“India is being obstructive across the piece… In no negotiation are they playing a constructive part,” said one Geneva-based diplomat.

Conference chairman Timur Suleimenov said it was “crunch time” as members were thus far not being as flexible as he had hoped.

Ministers are discussing the possibility of imposing a temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents.

But serious objections remain from some countries that host major pharmaceutical companies, like Britain and Switzerland, notably on the scope of the proposals.

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