Could Doha Concerns Be Ignored at MC13?


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), seems to have given little attention to the unresolved significant issues pertinent to developing countries, particularly in the Doha work program, for the upcoming 13th ministerial conference, according to inside sources.

The WTO's 13th ministerial meeting is scheduled to occur in Abu Dhabi in February next year. The international trade system is already experiencing turbulence, with several developed nations seeming to implement new obstacles through multibillion-dollar unilateral trade policies, often seen as "me-first". Such practices are well-known to further fragment the global trading system, say several trade envoys.

Efforts are underway to satisfy developed countries by ensuring their preferred outcomes at MC13 while disregarding concerns raised by developing nations, an anonymous trade envoy stated.

Silence on Key Issues

It's not surprising that the Director-General remained largely quiet on matters such as a permanent solution for public stockholding programs for food security, the special safeguard mechanism, and the G90 proposals during her statement at an informal meeting of Heads of Delegations this week, according to unnamed sources.

Instead, she seems to be aligning with the agenda promoted by the United States, the European Union, and the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries, focusing on topics like food security during crises, environmental and sustainability issues, and state intervention and policy space, say individuals familiar with her recent statement.

Her statement was later distributed as a restricted document (Job/TNC/109).

At the meeting, she announced that the Senior Officials Meeting (SOM), initially scheduled for July, has been postponed to October following members' opposition to her initial proposal.

Focus on LDC Graduation

"One central theme I heard was the importance of finalizing the LDC Graduation issue," Okonjo-Iweala stated. Many members suggested that if no agreement is reached by July, as much progress as possible should be made so that senior officials can make a decision when they meet.

On Fisheries Subsidies

Regarding the next phase of fisheries subsidies negotiations, Okonjo-Iweala noted that the type of political guidance would depend on the progress made before the Senior Officials Meeting. She further stressed the importance of ratifying the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement in time for MC13.

However, achieving ratification by two-thirds of the members by the 13th ministerial meeting will be challenging, given the slow pace of the ratification process. To date, only seven nations - Switzerland, Seychelles, Singapore, the US, Canada, Iceland, and the UAE - have completed the process.

The Need for DSB Reform

Okonjo-Iweala emphasized that the WTO's credibility will largely depend on whether it can deliver dispute settlement reform at MC13. However, she did not elaborate on how DSB reform should proceed, or whether the ongoing DSB reform discussions should ensure that the two-tier Dispute Settlement System remains intact.

Developing Countries' Concerns

On agriculture, Okonjo-Iweala mentioned concerns including food security during crises and sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which are pertinent to the Cairns Group's farm producers.

Some say her focus on food security while neglecting the permanent solution for public stockholding programs for food security and the special safeguard mechanism indicates a shift in the narrative that seems to overlook the significant issues impacting poor and small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Regarding Development Issues

Okonjo-Iweala stated that development was a crucial area to address by MC13, mentioning the G90 proposals for improving special and differential treatment. However, some argue that the narrative on development being pushed by major developed countries and international financial institutions like the World Bank tends to overlook the concerns raised by developing countries.

Additional Concerns

Other issues such as the e-commerce work program and moratorium, pandemic preparedness, and the TRIPS waiver extension were also mentioned by the Director-General. Yet, due to opposition from a group of industrialized countries, it seems unlikely that there will be any resolution on the TRIPS waiver extension at MC13.

New Issues and WTO Reforms

Okonjo-Iweala raised new topics like environment, climate change and sustainability issues; state intervention and policy space; level playing field issues; inclusiveness and accessions, as possible deliverables for the MC13.

On WTO reforms, the Director-General suggested that senior officials be updated on procedural reforms and reach agreement on them as appropriate. However, her comments on WTO reforms seem somewhat unclear, as there is no explicit indication of what she considers to be "substantive reforms," say anonymous trade envoys.