by Joseph Purugganan



The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12)  of the WTO will take place against the backdrop of multiple crises–the continuing global health and economic crises brought about by the Covid 19 pandemic and a looming food crisis.  

At the onset of the pandemic, around 400 civil society organizations issued an open letter to governments demanding a  stop to  all trade negotiations in the wake of the crisis. The demand was made  to allow governments to focus their time and energies on the more urgent task of responding to the health and economic needs of their peoples.

Those demands fell on deaf ears as governments not only continued trade negotiations but used the pandemic to intensify the trade liberalization agenda.  The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), the mega free trade deal between ASEAN and its partners China, Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand was signed in November 2020, and took effect for most parties in January this year.  And a week from now, the WTO Ministerial will be pushing through in Geneva.

Overcoming crisis is the overarching theme of MC 12. The embattled institution is attempting to jolt itself out of a moribund state brought about by an internal crisis of legitimacy and relevance in order to position itself as a multilateral institution offering solutions to many of the world’s problems including the pandemic and global health issues, the food crisis, and environmental and resource management issues among others.

Another key motivation driving MC 12 is the desire to bounce back from the failure in Buenos Aires (MC11)  and prevent another stalemate in the negotiations.  MC11 held five years ago failed to produce any substantive outcome, except a decision to continue talks on fisheries subsidies and a work programme on electronic commerce.  

What’s on the Agenda

The call of Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for “simple, short, beautiful and balanced” texts for consideration of Ministers belies the fundamental divisions among Members across all key areas of negotiations.

The Push for final agreement on Disciplining Fisheries Subsidies.  The mandate is to negotiate disciplines to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, with special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries integral to the negotiations.

A recent study estimated “global fisheries subsidies at USD 35.4 billion (2018), of which capacity-enhancing subsidies are USD 22.2 billion.”  The report also identified the top five subsidizing political entities as China, European Union, USA, Republic of Korea and Japan, which  contribute “58% (USD 20.5 billion) of the total estimated subsidy.”

While the negotiations are couched in addressing concerns that are important to small, artisanal fishers– like environmental degradation, overfishing, and unfair trade competition–there is a serious concern among them that the proposed agreement could in fact narrow down further the support given to these subsistence fishers, favoring instead the interests of large subsidizers who are the cause of the problem to begin with.

Small fisheries across the developing world have come out strongly against the proposed fisheries subsidies agreement.   

The Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG) issued an open letter to Ministers on the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations, which was endorsed by over 80 international, regional and national organizations outlining the reasons why the talks will fail the mandate and called on States to “make sure that any outcome on fisheries subsidies negotiations targets those who have the greatest historical responsibility for overfishing and stock depletion, excludes all small-scale fishers from any subsidy prohibitions, prevents the WTO from ruling on the validity of conservation and management measures of members, and upholds the sovereign rights of countries under UNCLOS.”

The National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), a national federation of state level trade unions in India from the 10 coastal states with 13 Unions representing the interests of the fishing community across the country expressed their similar concerns against the agreement and called on the Indian government to “categorically reject this Agreement as it will destroy our livelihoods as well as food security for millions of Indians in the future.”

In Agriculture, there is the long-standing issue of the permanent solution to the issue of Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes. The issue revolves around the concern over food security and the important role played by State-run food programmes to address this concern. The debates are centered around the demand of developing countries, led by India and the G33 group of countries, to exempt programs aimed at addressing food security needs from subsidy limits under the Agreement on Agriculture.

There is a strong push from India and G33 for MC12 to finally deliver on the permanent solution to this question.  At the Bali conference nine years ago, Members agreed as part of the so-called Bali Package on a temporary  interim mechanism via a ‘peace clause’ that would exempt these programs from legal challenge as countries continue to work out a permanent solution.  

There is an equally strong push back however from the United States, the European Union and agriculture food exporting countries under the Cairns Group to prevent agreement on public stockholding at MC12 arguing that any outcome on PSH should be linked to the market access component related to domestic support reforms.  The big agriculture exporting countries are touting a package that includes a work program that outlines continuing work on a permanent solution (possibly by MC 13), a declaration on food security, and an agreement on the Singapore proposal to waive the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) food purchases from any export restrictions.

Another major agenda in MC12 , particularly for developing countries is the long awaited decision on the TRIPS-Waiver.  An outcome document was circulated to Ministers in May 2022 by the Director General reflecting the compromise text developed through informal negotiations among the QUAD–United States, European Union, and the original proponents of the Waiver proposal, India and South Africa.  While some view the QUAD text as a breakthrough in the talks, the overwhelming view from civil society organizations and health movements is that the proposal has narrowed down the scope of the waiver to cover only vaccines and exclude therapeutics and diagnostics, and therefore will not be able to remove barriers and ease burdens to equitable access to Covid 19 treatment. 

Also on the table for possible outcomes are decisions related to the proposal for investment facilitation for development, and electronic commerce.

What’s at Stake?

The debates around contentious issues in the key areas in the MC 12 agenda, are underpinned by a much broader concern over the future of the WTO.  In the lead up to the Buenos Aires conference  then Director General Roberto Azevedo spelled out that what is at stake is the credibility of the WTO and the feasibility of multilateral rule making.  In the wake of the multiple crises, the credibility and feasibility of the WTO to respond and remain relevant in the time of global shocks and emergencies like the pandemic is once again put to question..

Even prior to the pandemic however,  an internal crisis has already been plaguing the WTO. Its 27 year old history has been marked by a number of failed negotiations, failure to find consensus and move forward on the Doha round, and impasse in its dispute settlement mechanism.  We characterized the crisis of the WTO as one of  legitimacy and relevance.

The WTO’s legitimacy is undermined by  a democratic deficit underscored by  its failure to live up to the promise of a rules based system with a democratic, consensus decision making process.  Instead what we have seen over almost 3 decades is a rule by the few and powerful. IATP described the decision making process in the WTO as a broken process characterized by exclusive so-called ‘green room discussions”, mini-ministerial meetings, a chair driven process, closed-door deals, and a general power imbalance, manifested in the lack of staff of member states.  And the aggressive rather than the neutral and facilitative role of the Secretariat

THE WTO is also suffering from a development deficit underscored by its failure to live up to the supposed development agenda driving the Doha round negotiations. 

As Focus pointed out in its statement at the conclusion of MC 11 : “The fiction of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA)- that the agreement could be an instrument for development, and that somehow through implementing the Doha commitments , the WTO can be reformed to address fundamental problems of inequity and poverty- should once and for all be laid to rest, buried under the rubble of  (20) years of failed promises.”

What happened to the so-called development agenda?

Over the years, the development agenda has acquired new names: MSMEs, women and development, fisheries subsidies, investment facilitation for development, all of these were nothing more than attempts to whitewash the deeply rooted corporate agenda.​​

WTO Multilateralism

WTO’s relevance on the other hand is hinged on multilateralism- the continued assertion that the multilateral trade body is working for everybody and that it has the solutions to and the capacity to lead us out of these crises.

There was a strong call in Buenos Aires to support WTO multilateralism in the wake of the aggressive efforts of the United States, (especially under Trump) to unilaterally push its agenda.   While we must continue to call on our governments to reject the unilateralism and jingoism of the US, we must also continue to push for the rejection of  the multilateralism of the WTO that for close to three decades has overseen an aggressive agenda of economic liberalization, and the construction of global trade rules that have further exacerbated global inequities and weakened the capacities of States–particularly in poor countries–to advance trade in the context of their own development objectives in the midst of crises and uncertainties.

Trade and Economic Resilience

In the wake of the pandemic, the WTO’s  assertion of relevance is once again put to the test. The buzzword now is economic resilience.  While there is a recognition that globalization, which has deepend trade links and ‘hyper-connectedness’,  has made the world more vulnerable to shocks, there is a stronger assertion that  globalization has also made the world more “resilient to these shocks when they strike.”

The logic that is being advanced is that the problem is also the solution. The disadvantages could also provide advantages.  Trade increases vulnerabilities but trade also increases productivity that can lead to resources to deal with these vulnerabilities; and these resources help us prepare for future shocks. 

On the one hand there is a recognition that trade mobility is a vector for disease transmission but mobility also offers solutions as it could provide greater diffusion of knowledge that can lead to finding cures. Dependence on global value chains (GVC) can lead to disruption of supplies but also accelerate recovery of production across the chain.

The narrative that is being pushed is that there should be no turning back from the agenda of economic liberalization, if we want to effectively respond to crises. And that the reform agenda are necessary to better ably respond to crises and shocks.  The imperatives for reforms being advanced include enhancing transparency and predictability  in pandemic-related trade measures, removing bottlenecks in supply chains, and pushing negotiations in key new areas to create more opportunities.

But who is driving the so-called reform agenda?

The International Chamber of Commerce for example has advanced what it calls Global Business priorities for the WTO, a set of reform proposals  that it is advancing to “write new rules to ensure that the WTO continues to serve the needs of the businesses- the ultimate end users of the global trading system.” 

A South Centre report on WTO reform and the crisis of multilateralism broke down what the proposals, aimed at pushing new “pathways to progress”, seek to achieve. According to the report, the reforms are meant  to change existing rules in favor of developed countries (once again),  change the focus away from issues that are sensitive to developed countries (like agriculture) towards areas of where they are competitive (i.e. digital trade), and erode the gains made by developing countries (SDT).

Imperatives for People’s Movements

MC 12 should be viewed in light of the multiple crises in health, the economy, climate and environment, and food.  

We should challenge, along different fronts and through multiple but coordinated campaign platforms , the notion that the WTO as an institution and the solutions that it is propping up can solve the multiple crises.  

The battle lines have been drawn. On the pandemic response, we should amplify calls for a TRIPS Waiver that is broad in scope and effectively addresses the issue of vaccine justice. On the food crisis, we should solidify further the campaign against multistakeholderism as an approach to the governance of food systems; On climate we should continue to work with climate justice movements to push back the corporate capture and resistance to market-based solutions; on human rights, we should intensify work to dismantle corporate power and demand stronger, legally binding instruments to hold corporations accountable for crimes and human rights violations.

MC 12 can be an opportunity to tilt the narrative against business-as-usual responses  to crises driven by the corporate agenda, in favor of real, and progessive solutions advanced by people’s movements.#