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Countries rebuild trust in free trade and globalization – News

As the world faces the worst food security crisis in decades, WTO members pledge to make trade in food and agricultural inputs more predictable

By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Published: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 11:00 PM

As a beautiful dawn crept over Lake Geneva on June 17, a remarkable thing happened at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization. After nearly six days of negotiations at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference – culminating in a 48-hour marathon of uninterrupted talks – ministers and senior officials from the 164 WTO member states have adopted a historic package of agreements . Multilateral agreements – of a scale and scope the WTO hasn’t reached since the mid-1990s – will help people, businesses and the planet.

For example, ministers reached a compromise on a long-debated proposal to waive intellectual property protections related to Covid-19 countermeasures. The current supply of Covid-19 vaccines remains heavily dependent on the four WTO members which together account for more than 90% of the doses exported. As the pandemic has shown, many import-dependent regions are vulnerable to export restrictions introduced by other countries in the face of domestic crises.

Governments at the center of the negotiations believe the outcome – which has been criticized by public health campaigners for doing too little and by pharmaceutical companies for going too far – will help ongoing efforts to devolve and diversify the capacity of vaccine manufacturing. This is important for the future resilience of the global vaccine supply. Ministers also pledged to keep cross-border trade in medical supplies and components open and transparent, which will help members have better access to the products needed to fight this pandemic – and better prepare for the next one.

Then, the new fisheries subsidies deal – finally reached after nearly 21 years of negotiations – will limit the $22 billion in annual government support that contributes to the depletion of marine resources. By prohibiting subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as fishing on the high seas and in overfished stocks, the pact represents a major step forward in protecting the health of the oceans. The deal – the first in WTO history with a primarily environmental focus – also kicks off a second wave of negotiations to strengthen new rules on sustainability, including further disciplining support for overcapacity and overfishing.

As the world faces the worst food security crisis in decades, WTO members have pledged to make trade in food and agricultural inputs more predictable, which will help make prices less volatile. They adopted a long-standing proposal to help the World Food Program by ensuring that national export restrictions do not prevent the UN agency from accessing the humanitarian aid supplies it provides millions of people in regions affected by war and natural disasters. WFP Executive Director David Beasley tweeted that “this humanitarian exemption saves time, [money]and ensures that essential relief reaches the most vulnerable.

WTO members have also preserved the predictability of the global digital economy by extending a long-standing moratorium on the collection of customs duties on cross-border electronic transmissions. The move is good news for consumers of streaming movies and video games, and better news for the millions of small and medium-sized businesses that rely on digital services and marketplaces.

In addition, WTO members have launched a process of institutional reform, recognizing that the organization needs to update and improve the way it operates. They pledged to make the WTO dispute settlement system fully functional again within two years. And, most importantly, they recognized the role that trade and the WTO can play in empowering women, expanding opportunities for micro, small and medium enterprises and achieving global environmental goals.

Following the conference, a headline proclaimed that “a new dawn is dawning for the world trade order”. But success was not forthcoming. All but a few of the previous WTO ministerial meetings had yielded little or failed in acrimony. Many observers saw little chance of anything different happening this time around, especially given rising geopolitical tensions and the war in Ukraine.

And yet, the consensus in Geneva was joined by all WTO members, including Ukraine, Russia, the United States, China, the European Union and its member states, Australia, Brazil, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the Caribbean and Pacific island states. . It was the best of multilateralism. Members overcame bilateral tensions and chose to invest in the multilateral trading system, which for decades has underpinned global trade expansion and prosperity.

The agreements put the WTO back on track as a results-oriented organization. They demonstrate that multilateral negotiations – which until recently have been increasingly portrayed as moribund – can still deliver results, provided members overcome decades of mistrust and work together.

Amid all the talk of decoupling and de-globalization, governments have renewed their faith in the ability of multilateral rules to continue to anchor trade between countries and blocs. This will avoid the high costs of deep economic fragmentation. Strategic rivalries will of course persist. But the kind of strategic cooperation across geopolitical fault lines that was evident in Geneva will be needed, in trade and other areas, if we are to solve the problems of the global commons, from climate change to disaster preparedness. pandemics.

The measures adopted by the nearly 600 watery-eyed delegates in the WTO’s main conference room are laying the groundwork for members to restore confidence, reach new agreements and advance the institutional reforms needed to organization remains fit for purpose. The goal must be to continue to deliver results for people around the world. I am confident that this brick-by-brick approach will lay a solid foundation to sustain a reinvigorated WTO for a long time to come.

– Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Director General of the World Trade Organization