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Civil Society, Academics Share What’s at Stake at WTO Ministerial: Public Health, Food Security, and Multilateralism Itself

For Immediate Release: June 10, 2022
Contact: Deborah James, djames@cepr.net

Video of today’s press conference is available here. And a media availability list of NGO experts, many of whom will be in Geneva for MC12, is available here.

Today, with the June 12-15 WTO Ministerial just days away, civil society and academic experts from around the world shared what’s at stake at this biggest WTO meeting in years. After being twice postponed due to the pandemic, the WTO is now grappling with if and how to address the barriers that it created for the production of COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Other items on the agenda include the long-running fisheries dispute, agriculture rules for food security and a set of illegitimate plurilaterals that would further entrench corporate power in the areas of investment facilitation, domestic regulation, and Big Tech-friendly e-commerce. With the WTO in crisis for several years now, overshadowing all these discussions is the question of “reform,” which rich countries are pushing as a secretive means to repeal the fundamental WTO principles of multilateralism and consensus.

Quotes From Speakers

Adam Wolfenden, Campaigner with Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), Pacific Islands:

The current fisheries subsidies text is failing to meet its Sustainable Development Goal mandate. It isn’t targeting those who have the historic responsibility for the state of global fish stocks, it establishes the WTO as a body to make decisions on fisheries management measures and doesn’t contain proper development flexibilities for developing countries or small-scale fisherfolk. If the text continues to fail the mandate then it should not be agreed to.” – Adam Wolfenden Campaigner, Pacific Network on Globalisation.

Deborah James, Director of International Programs at Center for Economic and Policy Research and Facilitator of Our World Is Not for Sale global network, USA:

The stakes are high because the WTO has failed the world, in its alleged task to promote shared prosperity. Most countries that have experienced strong economic growth in the 27 years since the WTO’s inception have done so through integrating trade chains with China, not by integrating trade with the EU or the US, or by adhering to the WTO rule book. Thus, the graver crisis is that WTO rules have contributed to growing trends in inequality, food insecurity, and the climate crisis.

Now, instead of addressing the systemic problems with the WTO’s overreach, business lobbies and their allies in rich country governments are pushing aside the development agenda, refusing to take real steps to remove WTO obstacles to food security, and trying to get new deals to create more power and rights for big business in policymaking on domestic services, the digital economy, and investment – all while refusing the most fundamental task, of getting the WTO’s intellectual property protections out of the way of resolving the pandemic.

Instead, advocates of a truly sustainable, fair, and democratic global economy should look toward the document “Turnaround: New Multilateral Trade Rules for People-Centered Shared Prosperity and Sustainable Development” platform endorsed by over 200 national, regional, and global networks around the world, which exposes the corporate-driven nature of the WTO and offers pathways for the fundamental transformation of the global trade system into one that would facilitate food security, jobs, access to medicines, and true sustainable development.

Kinda Mohamadieh, Senior Researcher & Legal Advisor with Third World Network, Lebanon:
For the last few years, there has been concerted efforts by a few developed countries to undermine the principle of special and differential treatment, which is integral requirement for the functioning of the multilateral trading system, a treaty-embedded right for all developing and least-developed countries, and part and parcel of the original bargain enabling the establishment of the WTO and its multilateral agreements. MC12 could go down as a ministerial where some of these attempts are further advanced. Under the guise of WTO reforms, some developed countries are advocating differentiation among developing countries. Nothing is yet delivered on the mandate agreed in the 2001 Ministerial Conference in Doha to strengthen special and differential treatment, and which the G90 – the biggest group of developing countries at the WTO- has repeatedly and consistently sought to fulfill while developed countries have blocked. Chipping away on this central pillar of the multilateral trading system will not help strengthen the WTO, but rather will undermine its capacity to deliver for all its Members, and thus will further undermine its contribution as a viable multilateral institution.

Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni MPhil. MBE, Senior health policy advisor to UNAIDS and the People’s Vaccine Alliance:
In the middle of a pandemic, rich countries decided to continue to put the commercial interest of pharmaceutical companies above the public health of people in developing countries. It is 18 months since India and South Africa  proposed a waiver on intellectual property rules relevant to medical technologies such as tests, vaccines and medicines relevant to COVID-19. The EU, UK and other rich countries delayed and derailed a decision on the waiver. Now countries negotiating a much slimmer text which is not a waiver, ignores test and treatment and focuses only on patents. Moreover, it contains many obligations on countries that are far beyond the TRIPS agreement thus setting terrible precedents for products for other diseases. Developing countries must refuse to sign on such a dangerous text.

Ranja Sengupta, Senior Researcher with Third World Network, India:
Based on the lessons learnt from the last 2 years, the WTO Membership needs to look beyond short-term band-aid solutions and address structural issues, including the very inequitable rules of the Agreement on Agriculture, to ensure food security especially for developing countries, NFIDCs and LDCs. However, so far it looks like MC12 will be unable to deliver the right solutions. The Draft Declaration on Trade and Food Security only advances the interest of developed countries and provides no new tools to developing countries and LDCs. The WFP Decision is too little in scope and cannot even proclaim to solve the massive global food insecurity we see today. In spite of strong proposals from the developing countries, the Draft Ministerial Decision on Agriculture again pushes key mandated issues to MC13 and beyond, such as the permanent solution on Public Stockholding, the Special Safeguard Mechanism and Cotton, which are absolutely must for building long-term stability and resilience to crises across the developing world.

Jane Kelsey, Professor Emeritus at University of Auckland, New Zealand:
Everyone agrees on one thing – the WTO is in crisis. That should surprise no-one. From its inception in 1995 the WTO’s agenda was skewed in favour of rich countries and their corporations at the expense of the Global South. It aims to lock countries into a neoliberal agenda that put profits and property rights ahead of everything else and undermines democracy and peoples’ fundamental rights. Even Paul Krugman, a cheerleader for free trade, concedes that he and other economists failed to recognise this model would lead to “hyperglobalization” and that ignoring its distributive impacts would cause massive economic and social upheaval.

Equally, the WTO was bound to collapse under its overreach, redefining almost anything that governments do as fair game for profit-centred “trade” rules – as we see with the shameful saga of intellectual property rights and the refusal of a handful of powerful countries to support the TRIPS waiver.

USTR Katherine Tai herself calls this free trade model a 20th century approach that’s not fit for today’s challenges. Yet the solution of powerful countries including the US is not to address those failures, but to stage a coup through plurilateral Joint Statement Initiatives to remake WTO to once more serve their needs and interests.  The real solution requires a zero based re-appraisal of what global commerce should aim to do and the rules that should govern it.

OWINFS is a global network of NGOs and social movements working for a sustainable, socially just, and democratic multilateral trading system. www.ourworldisnotforsale.org.