World Trade Organization talks all the way with no major deal in sight

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GENEVA – Talks ended on Thursday as the World Trade Organization was due to conclude its first ministerial-level meeting in more than four years, with no firm agreement so far on issues including food security, the fight against overfishing in the seas, and efforts to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines.

India’s top envoy, however, held out hope for a breakthrough, predicting “one of the most successful meetings” of its kind in years.

This week, Western diplomats had accused the Indian delegation of blocking an agreement on issues such as a waiver of WTO rules that protect the patents behind COVID-19 vaccines and an attempt to cut government subsidies that help industrial-scale fishing operations that rake in huge catches, while protecting the livelihoods of small-scale fishers.

India has positioned itself as a leading voice for developing countries who have resisted what they perceive as authoritarian demands by Western powers trying to protect the diversity of ocean wildlife and the innovations of their pharmaceutical industries. lucrative.

As the deadline for the talks approached, India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal spoke enthusiastically to reporters, saying a ‘disheartened mood’ the previous day had given way to ‘positivity’ after talks all night and Thursday morning.

“The positivity with which everyone is engaged is really a matter of celebration for the world. I just hope I don’t speak too soon,” he said. “But India is confident that it will be one of the most successful ministerial meetings the WTO has seen in a long time.”

Goyal declined to specify which of a series of negotiations would bear fruit.

Ambitions to strike deals at the WTO are, in many ways, a victim of the very structure of the organization: the 164-member trade body works by consensus, which means that each country must approve the decisions or less do not interfere. The United States, in particular, has single-handedly blocked appointments to the WTO appeals court, which aims to arbitrate trade disputes.

The four-day meeting that opened on Sunday was extended by a day to give negotiators one last chance to strike at least one back-to-back deal. It would be the first in years.

India was a crucial participant in the ‘intellectual property waiver’ talks on COVID-19 vaccine protections – with South Africa – which clashed with many wealthy nations. WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has started talks with the United States and the European Union to work on a compromise text.

Many activist groups oppose the proposed changes, saying they don’t go far enough to help fight a once-in-a-century pandemic or prepare for the next one. Big Pharma has resisted any changes that might dilute the protections for its innovations.

The envoys also echoed statements showing support for the World Food Program at a time of growing food insecurity as Russia’s war in Ukraine has stifled exports of wheat and other staples from its fields.

The draft fisheries text aims to limit government subsidies – such as for fuel – to fishing boats or workers who engage in “illegal, unreported and unreported” fishing or national subsidies that contribute to “overcapacity or overfishing”. Some in developing countries could benefit from exemptions. Discussions on the issue have been going on at the WTO for two decades.

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