WTO strikes global trade deals after ‘roller coaster’ talks

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GENEVA — The World Trade Organization on Friday agreed to the first change to global trade rules in years as well as an agreement to increase supplies of COVID-19 vaccines in a series of commitments that were fraught with compromise.

The deals were struck in the early hours of the sixth day of a conference of more than 100 trade ministers that was seen as a test of nations’ ability to strike multilateral trade deals amid geopolitical tensions heightened by war. in Ukraine.

Delegates, expecting a four-day conference, cheered after passing seven agreements and declarations just before dawn on Friday.

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Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told them, “The package you have reached will make a difference in the lives of people around the world. The results demonstrate that the WTO is indeed capable of responding to the urgencies of our times.”

She previously called on WTO members to consider the “delicate balance” required after nearly round-the-clock talks that have at times been fraught with anger and accusations.

The package, which the WTO chief called “unprecedented”, included the two most high-profile agreements under consideration – on fishing and on a partial waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID vaccines. -19.

The deal to cut fisheries subsidies is just the second multilateral agreement on global trade rules in the WTO’s 27-year history and is far more ambitious than the first, which aimed to cut red tape administrative.

At one point, a series of demands from India, which sees itself as the champion of poor farmers and fishers as well as developing countries, seemed likely to cripple the talks, but arrangements were made, officials said. commercial sources.

WTO rules state that all decisions are made by consensus, with any member able to exercise a veto.

‘LOTS OF DUMPS’

“It was not an easy process. There were a lot of bumps, as I predicted. It was like a roller coaster, but in the end we made it,” an exhausted but elated Okonjo-Iweala said at a final press conference.

The agreement to ban subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or the fishing of an overfished stock has the potential to reverse the collapse of fish stocks. Although significantly reduced, it still garnered approval.

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“This is a watershed moment in tackling one of the biggest drivers of global overfishing,” said Isabel Jarrett, head of The Pew Charitable Trusts campaign to cut harmful fishing subsidies.

Okonjo-Iweala said it was the first step after 21 years of talks towards what she hoped would be a more comprehensive agreement.

The agreement on a partial intellectual property waiver to allow developing countries to produce and export COVID-19 vaccines divided the WTO for nearly two years, but was finally passed. It has also drawn the fiercest criticism from campaign groups who say it barely expands on an existing exemption in WTO rules and is too narrow in not covering therapeutics and diagnostics. .

“Put simply, this is technocratic manipulation aimed at saving reputations, not lives,” said Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The pharmaceutical industry has also criticized the deal, saying there is currently a surplus of vaccines that governments and other authorities have not figured out how to distribute and administer.

“Rather than focusing on real issues affecting public health, like solving supply chain bottlenecks or reducing border tariffs on medicines, they approved an intellectual property waiver on COVID-19 vaccines that won’t help protect people against the virus,” Stephen Ubl, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said in an emailed statement.

An agreement also reached was to maintain a moratorium on e-commerce tariffs, which the companies say is vital to allow the free flow of data around the world.

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Overall, many observers said the deals should bolster the credibility of the WTO, which has been weakened by former US President Donald Trump’s crippling of its ability to intervene in trade disputes, and put it on the road to reform.

EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the WTO meeting achieved results of global significance despite unprecedented challenges.

“The deep differences here amply confirm that deep reform of the organization is urgently needed, in all its core functions,” he said, adding that he would work for it to be approved at the next ministerial conference scheduled for 2023.

(Writing by Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Richard Pullin, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Toby Chopra)

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