By Norman P. Aquino, Special Reports Editor
GENEVA — World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala expects several groundbreaking deliverables at the 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi in February, including the entry into force of a deal against overfishing and making headway in doing away with harmful subsidies in agriculture.
“Let’s concentrate on those things that the multilateral trading system can deliver,” she told a news briefing on Wednesday, as she cited an “atmosphere of pessimism” in the leadup to the conference amid protectionist policies that are slowly eroding the world’s trading system.
“There is quite a list and if we can get two or three out of that list, I think we would have had success,” she added.
WTO ministers are also working on reforms to make the WTO process more open, transparent and inclusive, as well as fix the dispute settlement system that has been hampered by a nonfunctioning Appellate Body for almost four years now.
The WTO Agreement on Fishery Subsidies is part of the “Geneva Package” adopted at the 12th Ministerial Conference in June 2022 and marks a major step forward for ocean sustainability by prohibiting harmful fishery subsidies that the WTO said are a key factor in the depletion of the world’s fish stocks.
“Our oceans are 50% overfished, which means we cannot waste so much time in ratifying this agreement,” Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said. “The longer we wait, the more overfishing there is. This is one reason why we are fighting for it.”
Forty-three WTO members have ratified the deal, and the WTO needs 110 votes for it to take effect, she said.
The Philippines has yet to ratify the accord.
The Geneva Package also includes the WTO response to emergencies including a waiver of certain requirements on compulsory licensing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines, food safety and agriculture, and WTO reforms.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said the next step is to complete the second wave of fishery subsidy negotiations, which will consider giving developing nations policy space, special and differential treatment that will allow other members to treat them more favorably.
“We want to make sure that their development needs are factored into this second part,” the WTO chief said. “We hope to complete that. It will not be easy. It’s very tough but so far, we are moving on with it.”
WTO ministers are also working on the food security aspect of agriculture amid volatile global prices, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said.
The WTO, for one, wants to ensure that governments don’t impose export restrictions on food bought for humanitarian purposes under the World Food Program.
Some WTO members want to work on how much trade-distorting subsidies in agriculture are harming competition, while others are focusing on how countries with a big population can safeguard food stocks while still facilitating trade, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said.
“This is one where we have not had one success in the past,” the WTO chief said, referring to agricultural subsidies. “Agriculture is quite difficult. If we can get some agreements on the food security aspect again, and how to make that work better, that will also be a good thing.”
Also on the table in Abu Dhabi is the existing moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, the last extension of which was agreed in June 2022, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said.
“Now that trade is going digital, this is a very important agreement,” she said. “We’ve been able to extend it every year. We need to now decide: Do we do that again or do we permanently agree [about not imposing it]?”
The WTO chief said the consensus system gives each country a voice — no matter how small it is. “I still think it works in the sense that we should at MC12 (12th Ministerial Conference), that you can still get a multilateral agreement, that members can still overcome differences and make an agreement for the common good.”
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala admitted though that decisions could not be enforced in the absence of the WTO’s Appellate Body, which is the final arbiter of trade disputes.
The global economy is said to be edging closer to survival-of-the-fittest mode as major economies skirt the post-World War II trading system in favor of a more restrictive and transactional approach to world commerce.
US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has kept his predecessor’s tariffs on steel, aluminum and about $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, all illegal under the WTO rules.
He has also kept the paralysis of the seven-member WTO Appellate Body, which stopped functioning in December 2019 after the US blocked the appointment of new members, citing “judicial overreach” among other issues.
This has led to most panel reports being appealed into the void and leaving the disputes unresolved. As a result, members can’t enforce WTO obligations through complaints against alleged trade violations.
The WTO is now reviewing at least 17 international trade disputes.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said Guatemala’s permanent ambassador to the WTO is compiling ideas from members on how to improve the dispute settlement system, adding that it is not just the US that has issues with it.
“What will emanate will be a text on how the system should look like, and ministers will then look at it and negotiate,” she said. “That work is ongoing now.”