The World Trade Organization (WTO) has postponed its crucial meet of trade ministers from various countries, scheduled to start from November 30 in Geneva, for a second time, after an outbreak of a new strain of the Covid-19 virus led several governments to impose travel curbs. It is the first major trade casualty of the new Covid variant.
No date has been set for reconvening the 12th ministerial conference, widely seen as a test of the WTO’s relevance amid persistent onslaught by key members on the multilateral trading system that it represents.
The Geneva ministerial was to run until December 3 and host negotiations on a broad range of critical issues, including the WTO’s response to containing Covid-19 pandemic, curbs on fishery subsidies and a permanent solution to the public procurement programmes for food security. Although stark differences persist among various countries on many of the issues, face-to-face talks would have served to narrow the differences.
The ministerial will now be held “as soon as possible when conditions allow”, according to a WTO statement.
The B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa has been classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation, which says it may spread more quickly than other variants.
The postponement followed the announcement of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in Switzerland and many other European countries.
“Given these unfortunate developments and the uncertainty that they cause, we see no alternative but to propose to postpone the Ministerial Conference and reconvene it as soon as possible when conditions allow,” Castillo told the General Council. “I trust that you will fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”
WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the travel constraints meant that many ministers and senior delegates could not have participated in face-to-face negotiations at the ministerial Conference. “This would render participation on an equal basis impossible,” she said.
Many delegations, she said, have long maintained that meeting virtually does not offer the kind of interaction necessary for holding complex negotiations on politically-sensitive issues.
WTO members unanimously endorsed the decision and pledged to continue working to narrow their differences on key topics like the global trade body’s response to the pandemic and the negotiations to draft rules for pruning harmful fishery subsidies.
“This does not mean that negotiations should stop. On the contrary, delegations in Geneva should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with,” the DG said.
This marks the second time that the pandemic has forced a postponement of the 12th ministerial conference. The meeting was originally due to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Although the General Council decided to move the meeting to Geneva, Kazakhstan was chosen to chair the meeting.