Activist countries

Countries haggle all night to save WTO deals

Ministers haggled frantically through Thursday night at the World Trade Organization in a bid to salvage deals on food security, fisheries and the fight against Covid-19.

The 164 members of the world trade body have added an additional fifth day of talks to try to break the deadlock at the WTO headquarters in Geneva.

But despite easing their original Wednesday deadline, countries traded concessions into the early hours of the morning to cobble together a wide range of outcomes.

Countries have hit a brick wall trying to secure each separate deal on its own merits, so they are now making tit-for-tat deals in a bid to keep them all afloat.

“They’re looking at a big package: what can be achieved, compromises in different areas,” a trade official in Geneva told reporters.

“It’s basically, ‘what can I get here, (in exchange) for this,'” the manager said.

“We’re in the real negotiating part of the meeting. That’s where all the action is and hopefully where some deals are going to be done.”

– Juices and sandwiches –

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai was seen walking in and out of the late-night talks, while a giant platter of sandwiches was brought in to get the negotiators going.

“It’s going to last all night. Everything. People look tired,” the Geneva-based trade official told AFP, adding: “They’re negotiating, that’s good news.”

He said the talks had run out of juice – but only juice, rather than energy.

The WTO hopes to prove that it still has a role to play in tackling major global challenges.

WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who took office in March 2021, has focused her leadership on breathing new life into the ossified organization.

“Progress is being made but it takes a bit more work and more time,” the chief executive said.

“It requires us to work and work nights; whatever it takes.”

The last WTO ministerial conference, in December 2017 in Buenos Aires, was widely considered a flop, closed without a major agreement and Okonjo-Iweala does not want to repeat himself.

The global trade body only makes decisions by consensus among the 164 members, making deals all the more difficult to strike.

Okonjo-Iweala hoped to pull off a coup by striking a longstanding deal to cut harmful fishing subsidies.

– India on the front line –

Negotiations to ban subsidies that encourage overfishing and threaten the sustainability of the world’s fish stocks have been ongoing at the WTO for more than two decades.

Diplomats say a deal is closer than ever.

But India threw a spanner in the works on Tuesday night, insisting it would not sign without a 25-year exemption – far longer than many would like.

Some coming out of the negotiating rooms blame Indian intransigence not only on fishing, but in all areas.

Citing their “destructive tactics”, a diplomatic source familiar with the negotiations said: “The question is whether they are really going to tear down the whole edifice, or whether they are ready to follow the views of the vast majority of the members. “

On fishing, the source added, “Now is the time…civil society wants it, fishing communities want it and our fish need it.”

The reform of the WTO, agreements on agriculture and electronic commerce are also on the table.

– “Save the WTO, not lives” –

“There are things that are going in the right direction and others that are unfortunately not going very far,” French Foreign Trade Minister Franck Riester told reporters ahead of the overnight talks, with health issues appearing to be among the most serious. promising.

A text related to the pandemic seeks to tackle the supply constraints that some countries face in procuring tools to fight Covid.

Ministers are also discussing the possibility of imposing a temporary patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines.

But some countries that host big pharma, like Britain and Switzerland, find some of the draft language problematic.

NGOs believe that the text does not go far enough.

Civil society activists stage a ‘die-in’ protest in the WTO atrium, accusing the EU, Britain, Switzerland and the US of sabotaging a meaningful intellectual property waiver of Covid.

“The proposal on the table is meant to save the reputation of the WTO but it will not save a human life from the pandemic,” protest organizer Deborah James told AFP.

Swiss Economy Minister Guy Parmelin insisted he remained against a sweeping waiver, adding: “Patents have not slowed access to vaccines, quite the contrary.”