WASHINGTON — Members of the World Trade Organization announced several agreements on Friday at the end of their first in-person ministerial conference in four years, pledging to curb harmful government policies that have encouraged overfishing and to relax some controls on intellectual property in an effort to make coronavirus vaccines more widely available.
The agreements were hotly contested, after several long nights of talks and long periods during which it appeared that the meeting would yield no major deal. Indeed, while the parties were able to reach a compromise on vaccine technology, the rift remained so deep that both sides criticized the outcome.
“It was like a roller coaster, but in the end we got there,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization, told an early morning news conference in Geneva after band members approved the final package of agreements.
The agreements were a significant success for an organization that has been criticized for being cumbersome, bureaucratic and mired in disagreements. But several government officials, business leaders and trade experts who visited the trade body’s headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva this week described the deals as the bare minimum and said the trade body, although still operational, hardly prospered.
Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former trade negotiator, wrote in an email that the deals, “when bundled together, are enough to claim success, but by no means suggest that the ‘WTO has turned a corner’.
Ministers ended up scrapping some of the most significant elements of a deal to tackle harmful subsidies for fishermen that have depleted global fish stocks, Ms Cutler said, and the response to the pandemic has been “too little, too late”.
The results “appear particularly meager in light of the severe challenges facing the global economy, ranging from anemic growth to a severe food crisis to climate change,” she said.
To deal with the growing food crisis in the world, caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the members of the group have made a mutual statement to encourage trade in foodstuffs and try to avoid export bans which aggravate shortages.
The trade organization also agreed to temporarily extend the ban on taxes or customs duties on electronic transmissions, including e-books, movies or research that could be sent digitally across borders. But the debate has been difficult and protracted on an issue that many companies and some government officials say should be low hanging fruit.
“Ministers have spent all week trying to prevent the e-commerce moratorium from going away, instead of looking at how to strengthen the global economy,” said Jake Colvin, chairman of the National Trade Council, which represents large multinational companies. .
One of the trade body’s biggest achievements has been reaching an agreement to help protect global fish stocks that has been under negotiation for two decades.
Governments spend $22 billion a year on subsidies for their fishing fleets, often encouraging industrial fishing operations to catch far more fish than is sustainable, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The agreement would create a global framework for sharing information and limiting subsidies for illegal and unregulated fishing operations, as well as vessels that deplete overfished stocks or operate on the unregulated high seas.
In the organization’s more than 25-year history, the agreement was only the second trade rules adjustment agreement to be signed by all members of the body. And it was the group’s first deal focused on environmental and sustainability issues.
Ocean advocates had mixed reactions.
Isabel Jarrett, head of the Pew Charitable Trusts project to cut harmful fishing subsidies, called the deal “a watershed moment in tackling one of the biggest drivers of global overfishing”.
“Limiting subsidies that lead to overfishing can help restore the health of fisheries and the communities that depend on them,” she said. “The new WTO agreement is a step in this direction.”
But others expressed disappointment. “Our oceans are the big losers today,” said Andrew Sharpless, chief executive of Oceana, a nonprofit group focused on ocean conservation. “After 20 years of delay, the WTO has again failed to eliminate subsidized overfishing and, in turn, allows countries to plunder the world’s oceans.”
As part of the agreement, negotiations will continue with the aim of making recommendations on additional provisions for consideration at next year’s ministerial conference.
Members of the World Trade Organization have also agreed to relax intellectual property rules to allow developing countries to manufacture patented Covid-19 vaccines under certain circumstances. Katherine Tai, the U.S. Trade Representative, said in a statement that members of the trade organization “have been able to bridge the differences and achieve real, meaningful outcome to deliver safer and more effective vaccines to those who need it most.”
The issue of relaxing intellectual property rights for vaccines has become very controversial. He pitted the pharmaceutical industry and the developed countries that host their operations, especially in Europe, against civil society organizations and delegations from India and South Africa.
Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the deal had “disappointed people around the world.” The global supply of vaccines is currently plentiful, he said, and the deal has done little to address “real problems affecting public health”, such as bottlenecks in the supply chain or border tariffs on medicines.
Lori Wallach, director of the Rethink Trade program at the American Economic Liberties Project, called the result a “dangerous public health failure” and “a vulgar display of the demise of multilateralism” in which a few wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies have blocked the desire of more than 100 countries to improve access to medicines. The deal did not loosen intellectual property rights for treatments or therapeutics, as desired by civil society groups.
The divisions between rich and poor countries and between big business and civil society groups were apparent in other negotiations, which also overlapped with the geopolitical challenges of a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
The World Trade Organization requires the consensus of all of its 164 members to reach agreements, and India has emerged as a significant obstacle in several of the negotiations, including on e-commerce tariffs and fishing subsidies.
Mr Colvin said the unanimous consent requirement had placed severe limits on the commercial body’s ability to produce meaningful results. “The system is set up to reward hostage-taking and bad faith,” he said.
Catherine Einhorn and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed report.