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Covid Vaccine and Fisheries Deals Close a ‘Roller Coaster’ W.T.O. Meeting

WASHINGTON — Members of the World Trade Organization on Friday announced several agreements at the end of their first personal ministerial conference in four years, pledging to curb harmful government policies that have encouraged overfishing and relax some intellectual property controls in an effort to promote vaccines against the virus. make coronavirus more widely available.

The deals were hard fought, after several long nights of discussions and long periods of time when it appeared that the meeting would not produce any big deals at all.

“It was like a roller coaster, but we got there in the end,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director-general of the World Trade Organization, said at an early morning news conference in Geneva after members of the group received the final package of agreements.

The deals were a major success for an organization that came under fire for being cumbersome, bureaucratic, and mired in contention. But several government officials, business leaders and trade experts descending on the trade organization headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva this week described the agreements as the bare minimum and said the trade organization, while still operational, was barely thriving.

Wendy Cutler, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former trade negotiator, wrote in an email that the deals, when wrapped together, are enough to claim success, but they in no way suggest the WTO has an angle. turned around.

Ministers eventually stripped away some of the most meaningful elements of a deal to fight harmful subsidies to fishermen who have depleted global fish stocks, Ms Cutler said, and the pandemic response has been “too little, too late”.

The results “seem particularly meager in light of the serious challenges facing the global economy, ranging from sluggish growth to a severe food crisis to climate change,” she said.

To address the growing food crisis around the world caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, members of the group a mutual declaration to encourage trade in food and to avoid export bans that exacerbate shortages.

The trade organization also agreed to temporarily extend a ban on taxes or customs duties on electronic transmissions, including e-books, films or research that can be sent digitally across borders. But the debate was hard and long over an issue that many companies and some government officials believe should be low-hanging fruit.

“Ministers have spent all week preventing the demise of the moratorium on e-commerce, rather than looking ahead at how to strengthen the global economy,” said Jake Colvin, the chairman of the National Foreign Trade Council, who represents large multinational companies.

One of the trade organization’s greatest achievements was reaching an agreement to help protect global fish stocks, which has been under negotiation for the past two decades.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, governments spend $22 billion annually in subsidies for their fishing fleets, often encouraging industrial fishing activities to catch far more fish than is sustainable. The agreement would create a global framework for sharing information and limiting subsidies for illegal and unregulated fishing activities, as well as for vessels depleting overfished stocks or operating in the unregulated high seas.

In the organization’s more than 25-year history, the deal was only the second trade rule change agreement to be signed by all members of the organization. And it was the group’s first agreement focused on environmental and sustainability issues.

Proponents of Oceans had mixed reactions.

Isabel Jarrett, manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts project to reduce harmful fishing subsidies, called the agreement “a turning point in tackling one of the main causes of global overfishing”.

“Reducing the subsidies that cause overfishing can help restore the health of fisheries and the communities that depend on them,” she said. “The new WTO agreement is a step in that direction.”

But others expressed their disappointment. “Our oceans are the big loser today,” said Andrew Sharpless, the chief executive of Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean conservation. “After a 20-year delay, the WTO has again failed to eradicate subsidized overfishing and in turn allows countries to plunder the world’s oceans.”

As part of the agreement, negotiations will continue with the aim of making recommendations on additional provisions to be considered at next year’s ministerial conference.

Members of the World Trade Organization also agreed to relax intellectual property rules to allow developing countries to produce patented Covid-19 vaccines under certain circumstances. Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, said in a statement that members of the trade organization “were able to bridge differences and achieve a concrete and meaningful outcome to bring safer and more effective vaccines to those who need it most.” .”

The issue of the liberalization of intellectual property rights for vaccines had become highly controversial. It pitted the pharmaceutical industry and the developed countries where their activities take place, especially in Europe, against civil society organizations and delegations from India and South Africa.

Although the parties were able to reach a compromise, the rift remained so deep that both sides criticized the outcome.

Stephen J. Ubl, the president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the agreement had “let the world’s population down.” Global vaccine stocks are currently abundant, he said, and the agreement did little to address “real issues affecting public health,” such as supply chain bottlenecks or border tariffs on drugs.

Lori Wallach, the director of the Rethink Trade program at the American Economic Liberties Project, called the outcome “a dangerous public health failure” and “a vulgar display of the demise of multilateralism,” with a few rich countries and drug companies the will of more than 100 countries to improve access to medicines. The agreement has not been relaxed intellectual property rights for treatments or therapies, as social groups would have liked.

Divisions between rich and poor countries and between big business and civil society groups were evident in other negotiations, which were also covered in the geopolitical challenges of a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The World Trade Organization needs consensus from all its 164 members to reach agreements, and India has emerged as a major obstacle in several of the negotiations, including on e-commerce tariffs and fisheries subsidies.

Mr. Colvin said the unanimous consent requirement had severely limited the trade organization’s ability to produce meaningful results. “The system is set up to reward hostage-taking and bad faith,” he said.

Catrin Einhorn and Sheryl Gay Stolberg reporting contributed.

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