WTO seeks deals in early 2022 despite postponing major meeting

A logo is pictured on the WTO in Geneva

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Trade Organization should be able to wrap up negotiations on fishing subsidies and a response to the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2022 even after postponing its ministerial meeting this week, its director-general said on Tuesday.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, addressing a briefing on the day its ministerial conference (MC12) was due to start, said the postponement had interrupted momentum “for all of 48 hours” and the Geneva-based trade body was now back at work.

The WTO is considering rescheduling MC12 to early March after it was delayed due to coronavirus travel restrictions. Members are expected later this week to discuss what to do next.

Two of the most advanced negotiations concern reducing subsidies for fishing to save global fish stocks and providing a trade response to the COVID-19 pandemic, notably on how to ramp up supply of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.

India and South Africa have proposed waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, but face opposition from developed members such as the European Union, Britain and Switzerland. They say it would be better to use flexibilities in existing WTO rules, which allow countries to award licences to local producers.

“Hopefully we work now, we come back after the holidays, we continue and I hope that early next year we can wrap up at least response to the pandemic and fisheries,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

The WTO had to change its way of operating and ambassadors had to be given more power to take decisions, its director-general said. It could also potentially use virtual meetings of ministers to bless texts when completed.

“We don't know the trajectory of this pandemic, so we have to re-look at the way we work … not really gearing everything to 'Let's wait for a ministerial' and then we'll suddenly start working hard and produce a result,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alison Williams)

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