Following their discussions on the issue of intellectual property and access to essential COVID-19 medicines and medical equipment on 5 May, WTO members turned to a proposed General Council Declaration on “Trade and Health: COVID-19 and beyond” endorsed by 20 delegations. The text calls for concrete actions to facilitate trade in essential medical goods and to enhance the capacity of the trading system to deal with a public health emergency. While members saw value in this initiative, some delegations questioned its scope as it mentions movement of goods but not movement of health professionals.
In addition, a group of Latin American and Caribbean members (Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay) made a statement asking for the immediate removal of all barriers to exports and restrictions blocking equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. They also asked to open a debate on trade-facilitating measures relating specifically to vaccine access, including customs and logistics, due notification, standards uniformity and easier movement of health professionals.
A number of members took the floor to comment on the statement, with many stressing the importance of overcoming barriers to the swift delivery of vaccines.
The chair of the General Council, Ambassador Dacio Castillo of Honduras, noted that issues related to the recovery from the health crisis are of the utmost importance, in particular ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), scheduled for 30 November-3 December 2021. “Several delegations have stressed that MC12 must provide a solid response to the pandemic. For that to be possible, we must be ready to discuss, listen and engage constructively with each other,” he said.
The General Council also considered a draft ministerial decision submitted by the WTO's group of least-developed countries (LDCs) in December 2020 which aims at establishing a smooth transition mechanism for graduating LDCs. The proposed decision would allow graduating LDCs to benefit from support measures available to LDCs for a period of twelve years from the date of their graduation, including continued access to trade preferences for LDCs granted by preference-granting WTO members. Proponents said the objective is to sustain the economic and trade-related progress achieved by LDCs and increase their participation in the multilateral trading system.
Reporting on his recent consultations with the membership on the proposal, Ambassador Castillo said that more time was needed for discussions but that members were willing to engage, which was positive. Several members made suggestions and further clarifications were sought.
Members continued discussions of Brazil's proposed Ministerial Decision entitled “Supporting the Conclusion of Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations for the Sustainability of the Ocean and Fishing Communities.” Brazil had circulated the draft Ministerial Decision after the General Council meeting on 22 December where members had remarked on the missed target to conclude fisheries subsidies negotiations by end-2020. The draft proposes that members commit to deliver “the highest standards of environmental sustainability” in a multilateral agreement on fisheries subsidies.
Brazil said that as the negotiations enter the final phase, and as members prepare for a July ministerial meeting on fisheries subsidies, it is important that members renew their commitment to secure an agreement. Members continued to express mixed views over Brazil's proposal, with some noting that the existing mandate was already sufficient while others said the draft would be useful to guaranteeing work towards an undiluted agreement. All members that took the floor committed to a positive outcome on fisheries subsidies by MC12 at the latest.
Members also continued discussing the ongoing Work Programme on Electronic Commerce and the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions. The chair noted that, following the good discussion members had on this topic, and seeing members' willingness to engage on this matter, he will reach out to delegations regarding the launch of “structured discussions” in the lead-up to MC12 so that members can better understand the scope, definition and impact of the moratorium.
Since 1998, WTO members have periodically renewed the moratorium — a decision not to impose customs duties on electronic transmissions — at each Ministerial Conference and have continued addressing e-commerce related issues in the Goods Council, the Services Council, the TRIPS Council and the Committee on Trade and Development as part of the e-commerce work programme. In December 2019, members renewed the moratorium until MC12 and decided to reinvigorate the Work Programme and dedicate the first part of 2020 for structured discussion on the issue.
India and South Africa — with Namibia as a new co-sponsor — once again presented their communication regarding the legal status of the joint initiatives and their negotiated outcomes. The joint initiatives refer to talks on e-commerce, investment facilitation, domestic regulation of services, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) and two environmental initiatives that large groups of members are involved in. While the three said they do not question the right of members to meet and discuss any issue, when such discussions turned into negotiations and their outcomes were to be brought into the WTO, the fundamental rules of the WTO should be followed. Any attempt to introduce new rules resulting from these negotiations into the WTO, without fulfilling the requirements of Article IX and X of the Marrakesh Agreement, will allow any group of members to bring any issue into the WTO without the required consensus and undermined existing mandated negotiations such as those on agriculture, they argued.
Around 30 members took the floor to comment. Many of those participating in the joint initiatives said they did not agree with the arguments of India, South Africa and Namibia or said their concerns were premature given the talks were still ongoing. They also noted the large majority of WTO members participating in one or more of the initiatives. Others said they shared concerns that the joint initiatives have implications for the rights and obligations of all members, including those not participating in the discussions.
The full agenda of the General Council meeting is available here.