After days of hard bargaining in Geneva, trade ministers of key members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) hammered out a deal to scrap subsidies for illegal fishing and agreed to grant a patent waiver for manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines for a period of five years to better fight the pandemic.
The fishery subsidy, the continuation of which India has been keen on, has been retained.
The WTO also decided to continue the 24-year-old moratorium on slapping customs duties on electronic transmission (e-commerce trade) by the next ministerial conference of the WTO but not later than March 2024. Some of the world’s big technology firms were apprehending that if the 1998 accord lapsed this week, it could result in cross-border tariffs on purchases from Amazon.com, Netflix movies, Apple music and Sony PlayStation games, etc.
Commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal asserted: “All in all, it is a good package…There is a good outcome on the issues which are long pending.”
India managed to protect the interest of its small and marginal fishermen, as the agreement on curbing harmful fishery subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is unlikely to dent New Delhi’s interests.
The minister is learnt to have frequently taken directions from Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the course of negotiations, as India, which was frequently seen as a deal breaker by the West, emerged as a deal maker.
The 12th ministerial conference, which was scheduled to be held between June 12 and 15, was formally extended by a day to facilitate an outcome.
But talks even continued until early Friday, ending a seven-year drought at the WTO for an outcome and infusing fresh vitality to the multilateral trading system that the body represents, after a deadlock in the Buenos Aires ministerial in December 2017.
The fisheries subsidies agreement, talks for which have been going on for more than two decades now, was finalised to scrap subsidies on overfishing, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
Goyal said that India has completely protected the interests of fishermen and farmers. Members agreed to put in place strict controls on overfished areas so that fish stocks are restored. Additionally, no subsidies will be provided for illegal fishing in areas outside exclusive economic zones of a country or the area under regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs).
The members also agreed to grant a temporary patent waiver for manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines for a period of five years. Under this, a country would be able to issue a compulsory licence to its domestic pharma firms to make that vaccine without taking approval from the original maker. Besides, it was also decided to permit export of those vaccines.
Talks on including therapeutics and diagnostics, as proposed by India and South Africa, under the purview of this waiver would start after six months.
Under the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver plan, a country can authorise the production of vaccines patented elsewhere and there would be no consent required nor would there be any limit on exports. A decision on including diagnostics/therapeutics, as sought by India and South Africa through a proposal, would be taken in six months. This would facilitate faster response to deal with the pandemic in future.
Members agreed to reform the WTO to make it more agile and efficient. Importantly, they decided to revive the dysfunctional Appellate Body of the WTO for dispute resolution, something that India has been seeking. The US has blocked the appointment of judges, thus crippling the WTO’s appellate mechanism. The revival will help settle trade disputes. However, a reference to gender, environment & MSME has been made in the WTO reform agenda. India had in the past discouraged the inclusion of non-trade issues in the WTO’s agenda.
India’s demand for a permanent solution to the issue of public stock holding for food security will be taken up later and the extant peace clause will continue to protect its current procurement programmes. As for food security declaration, the WTO members agreed to focus on making food available in developing countries while working towards increasing productivity and production.
As for the World Food Programme (WFP), there would be no export restrictions on its purchases for food security in other countries. However, domestic food security will take priority over supplies to the WEF.
“Everybody thought that this would be a failed meeting and some countries were raising concerns over the relevance of multiliteralism…. Issues which were pending for long, there was progress on that…Today we have no issues and we are not leaving Geneva with concerns,” Goyal said.
India, he asserted, has not compromised on the issue of minimum support price procurement from farmers for public stock holding.
“We have also protected fisherman. We have got future policy space. We took important decisions on food security and WTO response to the pandemic,” he said. The continuation of moratorium on e-commerce trade was agreed with a deadline.
WTO director general Nzogi Okonjo-Iweala said: “The package 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.”