WTO: MC13 Agenda Still in the Air

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Many World Trade Organization members last week flagged their core priorities for next year’s 13th ministerial conference, cautioning the credibility of the trade body could be lost if it cannot deliver on mandated issues in areas like TRIPS, agriculture and development.

At an informal General Council meeting held Wednesday, trade envoys echoed their divergent priorities for the possible deliverables at the MC13.

Indonesia, the Africa Group, Brazil and several others suggested that the credibility of the 164-member trade body will be judged on whether it can deliver on mandated issues or not, said participants who asked not to be quoted.

The Africa Group expressed sharp concern at the meeting, saying it is worried that “the longstanding development issues, particularly multilaterally mandated issues of priority interest to the Africa Group risk being relegated to the periphery and being waylaid or hamstrung by new issues that will dilute or overshadow our development priorities.”

Process and Logistics

The informal GC meeting was apparently convened to discuss the logistics and the process in the next four months before the MC13, but soon it became a meeting for trade envoys to echo their priorities and substantive issues.

At the end there was little consensus on the way forward on both process and logistics as well as on the substantive issues that were raised all over again despite the recent senior official meeting, a development that seems to have disappointed the Director General, said participants who asked not to be quoted.

On the issue of process/logistics, the United States apparently suggested the need to convene a senior officials meeting for two days prior to the MC13 that is scheduled to start on February 26.

Washington also is understood to have said that there should be clarity on the dates to ensure ministers’ participation and stay in Abu Dhabi, implying that last-minute extension of the event, as it had happened at the MC12 held in Geneva last June, must be avoided.

China said it supports the idea shared by the United States and Australia for providing two days for senior officials to discuss the key issues so as to “de-dramatize the Ministerial Conference.”

India and several other countries appear to also have concurred with the US suggestion for convening a SOM on February 24-25.

The European Union appears to have not supported having another senior officials meeting prior to the actual ministerial meeting, suggesting that ministers should be left enough time to host their bilateral and other meetings, said participants who asked not to be quoted.


China apparently argued for predictability in terms of the actual dates for convening and concluding the MC13. China called for starting the formal discussions on the MC13 ministerial Declaration.

Several countries called for transparency at the MC13, particularly on where small group or other meetings going to be held in Abu Dhabi. It appears the Mauritius trade envoy said that at least participants knew where the meetings were held during MC12 in Geneva, but MC13 could pose several difficulties for participants if they are kept in dark about where the meetings are being held during MC13, said participants who asked not to be quoted.

Several members, including India, said the outcomes on MC13 deliverables should be decided in Geneva so that countries are not taken by surprise at the ministerial conference, said participants who asked not to be quoted.

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted that past ministerial meetings have been extended beyond the last scheduled day, said participants familiar with the discussions.

“With about four months to MC13, every day must count to effectively utilize the political guidance and support we sought from senior officials and ministers to substantially advance our work towards concrete results at MC13,” Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said.

WTO General Council Chair Ambassador Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme of Botswana highlighted “reforms” as the top priority as well as a “reform ministerial”, including the “reform by doing” package.

Many developing countries, including Indonesia, India, the Africa Group and Brazil among others listed their respective priorities to be accomplished at the MC13.

Dispute Settlement Reform

On dispute settlement reform, China underscored the need for accelerating work on the current dual tracks. It said, “On one hand, members should make necessary improvements on the already-good draft so that a stable text on the less controversial issues could be reached soon.”

On the other hand, said China, “focused discussions should be conducted on the more contentious issues, in particular appeal review mechanism, with a view to finding landing zones that could address the interests of all members. Pragmatism and flexibility are the key words in this solution-sought process.”

In a strong statement issued at the meeting, Indonesia said the dispute settlement reform must ensure “the restoration of an independent, impartial, and two-tier dispute settlement system with the functioning of the Appellate Body”. It raised concerns about the informal dispute settlement reform discussions suggesting that developing countries and LDCs, with small delegations can effectively and meaningfully participate in the discussion.

India also called for credible reform of the dispute settlement system, including the restoration of the two-tier DSS.

The Africa Group said somewhat categorically that it prioritizes “the restoration of a two-tier DSS that is accessible to all and as articulated in our submissions and previous statements.”

TRIPS

The AG expressed sharp concern on what it called “the increasing informalization of the WTO and processes” cautioning that it “has a dire negative impact on the ability of Africa Group delegations to fully participate in key substantive discussions and decision-making effectively and meaningfully.” TRIPS

Indonesia said it aligns with the statement of South Africa, India, and all co-sponsors of the TRIPS waiver proposal IP/C/W/669. It expressed concern over the delay concerning lack of agreement on paragraph eight which is mandated to be extended to diagnostics and therapeutics within six months after the MC12.

Indonesia said, “it is time for the WTO to decide, once and for all, whether WTO can contribute to solving the issue of access, availability and affordability of therapeutics and diagnostics products for COVID-19.”

More importantly, “Concluding this issue will not only restore the credibility of WTO as an institution that caters to global cause and common goods, but also, to compliment and support the works done by WHO, especially related to pandemic preparedness,” Indonesia said. “The longer we wait, the less hopes remain for the world to survive another unprecedented pandemic, especially for people residing in developing members and LDCs,” Indonesia said.

India and several other developing countries also emphasized that there should be an outcome on paragraph eight prior to the MC13. The Africa Group said the extension of the TRIPS Decision in paragraph eight must be concluded by the December General Council meeting.

WTO Reforms

On WTO reforms, Indonesia said the much-emphasized WTO reform “must address imbalances in existing WTO Agreements” while ensuring “adequate policy space for developing countries and LDCs to implement them.”

Indonesia said “For us, a durable, long-lasting reform can only be achieved when all members can provide contribution and share their interests in an equal manner.”

The Africa Group called for “A Development Perspective on Institutional Reforms”, while outlining “core principles that “are indispensable for a truly multilateral trading system, such as inclusivity, transparency and development, the preservation of consensus decision-making in line with GATT Article 9; the safeguarding and preservation of special and differential treatment, and preservation of the Member-driven character of the WTO.”

The Africa Group also “outlined minimum standards of conduct that must be upheld within WTO bodies, including in the build up to and during Ministerial Conferences. Although we will not list them all in the interests of time, they do all remain fundamentally important to us.”

India and other countries also called for preserving the core principles of the Marrakesh Agreement in the proposed WTO reforms.

Agriculture

For many developing and least-developed countries, credible deliverables on agriculture are

imperative at the MC13. Apparently, Brazil warned that without an outcome on agriculture reform based on Article 20, the MC13 will not go well. Brazil, which leads the Latin American Group, had already called for holistic reform of agriculture based on Article 20 of the Agreement on Agriculture.

Indonesia said “True global food security requires nations to ensure their own domestic food security,” a position shared by India. Indonesia said “one outstanding issue that remains a priority for Indonesia is agriculture, with a focus on achieving a lasting solution to the Public Stockholding issue. “Failing to progress on the issue of PSH would undermine our response to current and future food crises,” Indonesia said.

India also issued a strong statement on the need to agree on an outcome on the PSH issue, which is one of New Delhi’s top priorities.

The Africa Group called for “a substantive and meaningful package in agriculture that addresses both the systemic causes of food insecurity as well as the immediate challenges that the NFIDCs and LDCs among us continue to face in the context of ongoing global or geo-economic and geo-political headwinds.”

“With regards to the former, the urgency of arresting and correcting the imbalances stemming from the Agreement on Agriculture as relates to subsidies, an outcome on PSH, on SSM and on Cotton remain priorities of the African Group,” it said.

Development

On Development, many developing countries upped the ante at the informal GC meeting. The

Africa Group said its key priorities would “constitute the minimum development package prior to or at MC13 must include: a substantive outcome on LDC Graduation, the 10 G90 ASPs, an extension of the TRIPS Decision (to be clear, this must be concluded by the December GC), the Development-dimension of the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce (WPEC); and Policy space for Industrial Development. We once more reiterate that the issue of policy space for industrialization is an urgent development priority for the Africa Group on which we expect more concrete outcomes than a commitment to deliberate.”

China called for an outcome on G90 proposal on making special and development treatment as raised by the Group of 90 countries. China said “The Investment Facilitation for Development is also a development-related issue,” saying the IFDA deserves a place in the WTO.

On industrial policy, China said before reaching common understanding on what to discuss, how to discuss, what expected outcome would be, it cannot support “a so-called “dedicated space” by MC13, especially with the worrisome message sent by some members very recently at certain forum.