Trade and Investment

WTO strikes global trade deals amid heightened geopolitical tensions

World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala delivers her speech during the closing session of the WTO Ministerial Conference at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 17 June, 2022

The World Trade Organization has approved a series of new trade agreements. Image: Reuters/Fabrice Coffrini/Pool

Emma Farge
Correspondent, Reuters Geneva
Philip Blenkinsop
Senior Correspondent, Reuters
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SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities

  • The World Trade Organization has approved a package of six trade agreements, including commitments on reversing over-fishing and pledges on health and food security.
  • The deal, reached on a partial waiver of intellectual property rights, will allow developing countries to produce and export COVID-19 vaccines.
  • But some critics say the waiver does not expand enough on an existing exemption in WTO rules and is too narrow by not covering therapeutics and diagnostics.
  • Observers hope the package will boost the credibility and strength of the WTO system.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is congratulated by Indian Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Indian Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal. Image: Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala talks with delegates at its 12th WTO Ministerial Conference
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala talks with delegates. Image: Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS
Delegates attend the closing session of the 12th World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference
Delegates attend the closing session the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference. Image: Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS
Director-General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at the opening ceremony of its 12th Ministerial Conference
Director-General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at the opening ceremony of its 12th Ministerial Conference. Image: Martial Trezzini/Pool via REUTERS

The World Trade Organization's 164 members approved a series of trade agreements that included commitments on fish and pledges on health and food security after more than five gruelling days of negotiations.

The deals were ground out over five days of bargaining at a conference of more than 100 trade ministers that was seen as a test of the ability of nations to strike multilateral trade deals amid geopolitical tensions heightened by the Ukraine war.

Delegates cheered after they passed the package of six agreements just before dawn on Friday.

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told them: "The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world. The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is in fact capable of responding to emergencies of our time."

Earlier she had appealed to WTO members to consider the "delicate balance" required after nearly round-the-clock talks that were extended for an extra two days and have at times been charged with anger and accusations.

At one stage, a series of demands from India, which sees itself as the champion of poor farmers and fishermen as well as developing countries, appeared set to paralyse talks but accommodations were found, trade sources said.

The WTO's rules dictate that all decisions are taken by consensus, with any single member able to exercise a veto.

The package, which Okonjo-Iweala called "unprecedented", included the two highest profile deals under consideration - on fisheries and on a partial waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

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The accord to curb fishing subsidies is only the second multilateral agreement setting new global trading rules struck in the WTO's 27-year history and is far more ambitious than the first, which was designed to cut red tape.

The fishing subsidies deal has the potential to reverse collapsing fish stocks. Though pared back significantly, it still drew approval.

"This is a turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global over-fishing." said Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies.

The deal on a partial IP waiver to allow developing countries to produce and export COVID-19 vaccines has divided the WTO for nearly two years, but finally passed. It has also drawn the fiercest criticism from campaign groups that say it barely expands on an existing exemption in WTO rules and is too narrow by not covering therapeutics and diagnostics.

"Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives," said Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

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One agreement had also been reached on Thursday, on maintaining a moratorium on e-commerce tariffs, which is considered vital to allow the free flow of data worldwide. read more

Overall, many observers were broadly supportive and said the deals should boost the WTO, which was weakened by former U.S. President Donald Trump's crippling of its ability to intervene in trade disputes, and set it on a course for reform.

"There's now a package on the table at (the ministerial conference) that would provide a real boost to the credibility and strength of the WTO system," said John Denton, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce, before the package passed.

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