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WTO ministerial conference extended by a day to try forge an outcome

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Geneva: World Trade Organisation director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has decided to extend the ongoing 12th ministerial conference by a day as the 164 member countries are yet to arrive at a consensus on any of the key issues on the table. The four-day ministerial conference will now conclude on Thursday.

However, officials in Geneva say that the possibility of an outcome still appear bleak with developed and developing countries remaining entrenched in their positions on most issues including patents waiver, fisheries, and agriculture.

“…Following DG’s consultation with the MC12 chairs, vice chairs, and the minister facilitators, delegations are advised that the MC12 conference will be extended by one day until Thursday, June 16, 3pm,” said a communication from the WTO.

WTO DG Okonjo-Iweala had on Tuesday urged members to go the extra mile to find convergence on the various issues at stake at MC12.

“It requires that we work harder and work nights, whatever it takes to be able to do it. The good news is … that progress is being made but it needs a little more work and more time,” said Okonjo-Iweala. “The not so good news is that we are running out of time, so I think it is really time for ministers to make the requisite decisions that need to be made.”

The MC12 Chair Timur Suleimenov indicated after the third day of meetings that an agreement on fisheries and agriculture may be tough. “The WTO members’ positions were not as flexible as I would have wished them to be at this point,” he said.

The members may want to strike a deal on the low-hanging fruits like extension of moratorium on e-transmissions, and WTO reforms.

While the developed countries have hardened positions on the TRIPS waiver issue, the developing countries led by India are pressing for a balanced outcome on fisheries and agriculture issues.

In the case of agriculture, developing countries led by India are seeking a permanent solution to the public stockholding issue, which would protect their rights to expand their food security programmes by giving out higher support to farmers. They have proposed a new method to calculate subsidies given to purchase, stockpile, and distribute food. However, developed countries want to take up the issue in the next ministerial conference- MC13. The draft text on agriculture only talks about outlining a Work Programme to develop a permanent solution to the public stockpile issues.

India is also pressing for allowing exports from the public stockholdings to support countries in need on a government-to-government basis. As per the current WTO rules, exports from public stockholdings are not allowed as it is considered to be market distorting.

India along with the G-33 nations is unlikely to sign a deal without a permanent solution.

Similarly, with patents waiver for covid-19 vaccines, the UK and Switzerland want to further limit the scope of an agreement, whereas developing countries want the scope of the deal to widen to include Covid drugs and diagnostics.

And in fisheries subsidies, developing nations led by India have clearly said they will not sign the agreement if a longer transition period is not part of it.

“The outcome on any issues seems very difficult at the moment. There is no consensus emerging even in the smaller group meetings. There is unlikely to be any major headway on either the issue of agriculture, patents, or fisheries,” said an official.

(The writer is in Geneva at the invitation of the ministry of commerce and industry)

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