GENEVA — World Trade Organization members have reached a string of deals and commitments aimed to limit overfishing, broaden production of COVID-19 vaccines in the developing world and reform a 27-year-old trade body that has been back on its heels in recent years.
WTO Director-General Nzogi Okonjo-Iweala, after a pair of sleepless nights in rugged negotiations, concluded the WTO’s first ministerial conference in 4-1/2 years by trumpeting a new sense of cooperation at a time when the world has faced crises like growing food insecurity, war in Ukraine and a once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken millions of lives.
“The package agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world,” said Okonjo-Iweala, who is 15 months into the job. “The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is in fact capable of responding to emergencies of our time.”
Among the main achievements at the 164-member trade body were an agreement, which fell short of full early ambitions, to prohibit support for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and ban support for fishing in overfished stocks in the world’s oceans. The WTO chief said Friday the accord takes a “first but significant step” to curb government subsidies and overcapacity — too many operators — in the fishing industry.
“WTO members have for the first time, concluded an agreement with environmental sustainability at its heart,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “This is also about the livelihoods of the 260 million people who depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries.”
More controversial was agreement on a watered-down plan to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, which ran afoul of advocacy groups that say it did not go far enough – and could even do more harm than good.
“The TRIPS waiver compromise will contribute to ongoing efforts to concentrate and diversify vaccine manufacturing capacity so that a crisis in one region does not leave others cut off,” said Okonjo-Iweala of the waiver of intellectual property protections.
Aid group Doctors Without Borders called it a “ devastating global failure for people’s health worldwide” that the agreement stopped short of early calls to include other tools to fight the coronavirus including treatments and tests.
The meeting also agreed to lift export restrictions that have weighed on the U.N.’s World Food Program, which is trying to offset the impact of rising food prices and fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine on shipments of wheat, barely and other foodstuffs from a key producer of them.