After a last-minute extension to the twice-cancelled 2022 WTO Ministerial Conference that eventually took place in Geneva between 12-15 June 2022, member states have managed to agree to a multi-lateral deal.
So what exactly is the “Geneva Package,” and what could it mean for world trade?
After five days of ‘marathon talks,’ some hard negotiating and plenty of encouragement from Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at MC12, World Trade Organisation (WTO) members have managed to secure a historic package of trade deals for member states.
A statement released by the WTO after the conference finally ended, announced that:
“Round-the-clock negotiations among delegations produced the ‘Geneva Package’, which contains a series of unprecedented decisions on fisheries subsidies, WTO response to emergencies, including a waiver of certain requirements concerning compulsory licensing for COVID-19 vaccines, food safety and agriculture, and WTO reform.”
Earlier in June, delegates failed to reach an agreement by the time the conference was originally due to end, leading to the Director-General’s shock decision to extend talks and urge the 100+ members present to “go the extra mile” in achieving consensus around some of the main issues on the agenda.
Many considered both the conference, which had to be postponed twice due to COVID-related travel restrictions, and the package long overdue.
Critics had already begun to express doubts about the efficacy of the WTO given that members haven’t managed to come up with a multi-lateral trade deal of any kind for decades.
Supporters of the WTO see this as proof that the organisation still has relevance as a global trade forum and can still play a significant role in addressing some of the world’s most pressing food security, health, and environmental problems, at a time when many of these issues are reaching critical mass.
Key elements of the package
The deal, which consists of a series of individual measures and charters aimed at addressing a number of challenges on the MC12 agenda, includes,
- Rules designed to curb harmful fishing subsidies and ban over-fishing so as to protect global fish stocks whilst also acknowledging the needs of fishers in developing and least-developed countries (LDCs) to earn a living.
- A detailed response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, including patent waivers on pandemic-related vaccines and medical supplies to give members from poorer countries greater access to essential health-related medicines and diagnostic equipment for their populations.
- A roadmap for how to respond to future pandemics in areas like food security, intellectual property rights and regulatory cooperation, tariff waivers and classification, technology transfer, trade facilitation, and transparency so as to avoid repeating the mistakes made during 2020.
- On food security, ministers signed a declaration exempting humanitarian organisations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) from export prohibitions or restrictions on making food purchases designed to help the most vulnerable around the world.
Ministers also managed to make progress on the topic of WTO internal reform.
These reforms targeted the WTO’s dispute settlement system, helping to address complaints around unwieldiness and too much bureaucracy, which many felt were stifling the forum’s ability to function effectively or be more transparent and inclusive.
WTO’s General Council and its subsidiary bodies have committed to conducting a thorough review of all current processes, and then reporting back to members at MC13 with their suggestions for improvements, with a view to implementing these no later than 2024.
Agriculture: more work is needed
On the subject of food security, particularly with regard to agriculture, the Director-General was forced to admit that more work is needed to be done to overcome ongoing differences around issues such as cotton and market access, domestic subsidies, and public stockholding.
However, she remained hopeful that these could be ironed out at future ministerial conferences.
Expressing her delight at the meeting’s successful outcome, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said that the measures set out in the Geneva Package, “show the world that WTO members can come together, across geopolitical fault lines, to address problems of the global commons, and to reinforce and reinvigorate this institution.”
“They give us cause to hope that strategic cooperation will be able to exist alongside the growing strategic competition.”
Many had seen the summit as a major test of Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership, given the current political climate – one increasingly characterised by isolationism and economic policies centred around self-interest and trade protectionism.
Prior to MC12, many had noted the WTO’s failure to produce any sort of meaningful multilateral deal in several decades.
This, coupled with the early resignation of several previous directors-general had led to question marks around what the organisation could realistically achieve.
It is therefore significant that in his closing remarks at the end of MC12, conference chair Timur Suleimenov, deputy chief of staff of the Kazakh President, personally thanked the WTO Director-General for never giving up.
“Her determination, her leadership, her perseverance made all the difference. Dr Ngozi, the WTO owes you a great debt.”
Geneva package documents and statements in full from the WTO
- MC12 outcome document (WT/MIN(22)/24)
- Outline of the WTO’s official response to emergencies, comprising:
- A Ministerial Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Insecurity (WT/MIN(22)/28)
- A Ministerial Decision on World Food Programme (WFP) Food Purchases Exemptions from Export Prohibitions or Restrictions (WT/MIN(22)/29)
- A Ministerial Declaration on the WTO Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Preparedness for Future Pandemics (WT/MIN(22)/31)
- A Ministerial Decision on the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (WT/MIN(22)/30)
- A Decision on the E-commerce Moratorium and Work Programme (WT/MIN(22)/32)
- An Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies (WT/MIN(22)/33).
- Work Programme on Small Economies (WT/MIN(22)/25)
- TRIPS non-violation and situation complaints process (WT/MIN(22)/26)
Sanitary and Phytosanitary Declaration: ‘Responding to Modern SPS Challenges’ (WT/MIN(22)/27).