The World Trade Organization’s164 members approved a series of trade agreements early on Friday that included commitments on fish and pledges on health and food security after more than five gruelling days of negotiations.
The deals were ground out over five days of bargaining at a conference of more than 100 trade ministers that was seen as a test of the ability of nations to strike multilateral trade deals amid geopolitical tensions heightened by the Ukraine war.
Delegates cheered after they passed the package of six agreements just before dawn on Friday.
Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told them: “The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world. The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is in fact capable of responding to emergencies of our time.”
Earlier she had appealed to WTO members to consider the “delicate balance” required after nearly round-the-clock talks that were extended for an extra two days and have at times been charged with anger and accusations.
At one stage, a series of demands from India, which sees itself as the champion of poor farmers and fishermen as well as developing countries, appeared set to paralyse talks but accommodations were found, trade sources said.
The WTO’s rules dictate that all decisions are taken by consensus, with any single member able to exercise a veto.
The package, which Okonjo-Iweala called “unprecedented”, included the two highest profile deals under consideration – on fisheries and on a partial waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines.
The accord to curb fishing subsidies is only the second multilateral agreement setting new global trading rules struck in the WTO’s 27-year history and is far more ambitious than the first, which was designed to cut red tape.
The fishing subsidies deal has the potential to reverse collapsing fish stocks. Though pared back significantly, it still drew approval.
“This is a turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global over-fishing.” said Isabel Jarrett, manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies.
The deal on a partial IP waiver to allow developing countries to produce and export Covid-19 vaccines has divided the WTO for nearly two years, but finally passed. It has also drawn the fiercest criticism from campaign groups that say it barely expands on an existing exemption in WTO rules and is too narrow by not covering therapeutics and diagnostics.
“Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives,” said Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
One agreement had also been reached on Thursday, on maintaining a moratorium on e-commerce tariffs, which is considered vital to allow the free flow of data worldwide.
Overall, many observers were broadly supportive and said the deals should boost the WTO, which was weakened by former US President Donald Trump’s crippling of its ability to intervene in trade disputes, and set it on a course for reform.
“There’s now a package on the table at (the ministerial conference) that would provide a real boost to the credibility and strength of the WTO system,” said John Denton, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce, before the package passed.