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World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses with delegates after the closing session of a ministerial conference at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on June 17 2022.
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses with delegates after the closing session of a ministerial conference at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on June 17 2022.
Image: Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

The World Trade Organization agreed on the first change to global trading rules in almost 30 years on Friday — as well as a deal to boost the supply of Covid vaccines — in a series of pledges that were heavy on compromise.

The deals were forged in the early hours on the sixth day of a conference of more than 100 trade ministers in Geneva, Switzerland, that was seen as a test of members’ ability to strike multilateral trade agreements amid geopolitical tensions.

The package, which WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala described as “unprecedented”, includes two high-profile deals on fisheries and a partial waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines, which SA and other countries had pushed for.

At one stage, a series of demands from India — which sees itself as the champion of poor farmers and fishermen as well as developing countries — seemed set to paralyse talks but accommodations were found, trade sources said. The WTO’s rules dictate that all decisions are taken by consensus, with any member able to exercise a veto.

The accord to curb fishing subsidies is only the second multilateral agreement setting new global trading rules struck in the WTO’s 27-year history and is far more ambitious than the first, which was designed to cut red tape.

“It was not an easy process. There were a lot of bumps, just like I predicted. It was like a roller coaster, but in the end we got there,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

The deal to ban subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, or catching overfished stock has the potential to reverse collapsing fish stocks. Though pared back significantly, it still drew approval.

Okonjo-Iweala said it was the first step after 21 years of talks towards what she hoped would be a more comprehensive deal.

The deal on a partial IP waiver to allow developing countries to produce and export Covid vaccines has divided the WTO for nearly two years, but was finally passed. But it has drawn criticism from groups that say it barely expands on an existing exemption in WTO rules and is too narrow by not covering therapeutics and diagnostics.

“Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives,” said Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

One agreement also reached was to maintain a moratorium on e-commerce tariffs, which business says is vital to allow the free flow of data worldwide.

Observers said the deals should boost the credibility of the WTO — which was weakened by former US president Donald Trump’s crippling of its ability to intervene in trade disputes — and set it on course for reform.

Reuters

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