Longstanding World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements on fisheries subsidies and a patent waiver for the Covid vaccine moved closer to completion on Saturday after negotiators finalized the texts for ministerial consideration, but significant obstacles remained in reaching a final agreement.
Diplomats held round-the-clock talks to hammer out texts on several thorny issues ahead of the World Trade Organization’s first high-level meeting in five years, where trade ministers and officials from 164 countries have four days from Sunday to try to get the negotiations to the finish line.
It is set against the backdrop of the Ukraine-Russia war and fears of a global food crisis as a result of the conflict.
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The world trade body announced in the early hours of Saturday that a draft text on a long-elusive agreement banning subsidies promoting overfishing had been handed to ministers.
They will be tasked with ironing out the final sticking points towards an agreement that has been going on for decades.
The success of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference will largely depend on its success.
“Not all the issues have been resolved. Indeed, this is a draft agreement and in this draft there are still issues that the members have not yet agreed on,” said acknowledged Colombian Ambassador Santiago Wills, who chairs the WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies.
But he said months of intense negotiations had presented “a clean solution” to some issues that had long “seemed intractable”.
The WTO takes its decisions by consensus, which makes agreements all the more difficult to reach.
Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at between $14 billion and $54 billion a year, according to the body.
It is widely accepted that action is needed to protect a crucial resource that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods.
WTO members have been discussing for 20 years the need for an agreement to ban subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, as well as overfishing.
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Wills noted “significant progress” on the delicate issue of “territoriality”, with the draft text ensuring that a panel of WTO experts would not be called upon to decide who has jurisdiction over disputed territorial claims or who overlap.
Progress has also been made on the issue of fuel subsidies and the so-called special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing countries, long a major stumbling block, he said, hailing a ” considerable narrowing of differences”.
The special treatment for the poorest countries is widely accepted, but the demands of some self-identified developing countries for exemption from subsidy constraints, including major fishing nations like India, have been hard to swallow for some.
The draft text proposes that the exemptions do not apply to Member States representing a certain share of the world volume of marine capture production, but this percentage has not yet been defined.
Wills stressed the urgency of finally reaching an agreement.
“The longer we wait, the more the fish lose. And the more the fish lose, the more we all lose,” he said.
The WTO also said draft text had been finalized on the thorny issue of a temporary patent waiver for Covid vaccines to provide fair access to shots and better combat the still-raging pandemic.
But the agreement is far from certain.
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The pharmaceutical industry and a number of its host countries have warned of the impact on innovation, while public interest groups warned on Saturday that the new text is so weak it could even further complicate access to vaccine production.
“It has been a very difficult, very difficult process,” acknowledged WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
“I know for all of you it’s been a tough time, but we’ve done our best for now.”
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