After nearly hitting a deadlock over fisheries subsidies, the 164 member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) forged a bouquet of deals in the wee hours of Friday in Geneva by significantly lowering their ambitions.
The four-day conference, which kicked off on Sunday, was scheduled to end on June 15. However, it was extended by two more days to push trade ministers to hammer out a deal to maintain a sense of purpose at a multilateral organisation that is fighting for its relevance.
The deal included patent waiver to fight the pandemic, limited only to production and exports of vaccines that India had earlier termed as “too late in the day as the pandemic has run its initial course”. India’s demand to allow it to export food grain from its public stockholding could also not be agreed upon. On fisheries, though millions of Indian fishermen will not face any cut in state subsidies, countries were able to agree to only a partial deal to cut down illegal unreported, unregulated (IUU) especially by China and countries of the European Union.
India also climbed down from its demand to end moratorium on customs duty on electronic transmission, which anyway was considered as a bargaining tool. At the end of the day, India was happy that it won’t have to take fresh disciplines in any sector even as a deal could be agreed up on.
Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said perhaps this was the first ministerial where India set the agenda. “We were on the front foot. We were telling other countries what need to be done.”
The outcome of the WTO is not only emblematic of the importance of a multilateral trading system but is also seen as an image makeover effort by India to be seen as a deal maker than a deal breaker.
Biswajit Dhar, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University said countries have deliberately lowered their ambitions to at least get something on the table. “If you have high ambitions and fail, then it would have sent a signal that WTO can’t take decisions,” he added.
However, the WTO’s failure to include diagnostics and therapeutics in the patent waiver deal along with vaccines drew strongest criticism. Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam said this is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere. “This so-called compromise largely reiterates developing countries’ existing rights to override patents in certain circumstances. And it tries to restrict even that limited right to countries which do not already have capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives,” he added.
In October 2020, India and South Africa and 63 co-sponsors of the waiver proposal had made the TRIPS waiver proposal to help middle and low income nations get access to Covid-19 vaccines and drugs. However, the discussions reached a deadlock in the TRIPS Council. The final agreement fell short of the original proposal.
The global trade body was also able to build a consensus on the agreement on a 21-year old issue that aims to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and promote sustainable fishing. The final agreement removed the contentious clause, which proposed a ban on overfishing subsidies within seven years. India had called for a ban on subsidies in 25 years for countries fishing in areas beyond their exclusive economic zones.
According to the final deal, there will be checks on illegal unreported, unregulated fishing in India’s waters and elsewhere. Besides, no subsidies will be provided for fishing in areas outside exclusive economic zones.
The outcome document of the ministerial committed to work towards necessary reform of the WTO while reaffirming the foundational principles of the WTO and promised to revive the dispute settlement body in next two years.