The Geneva Package: WTO confirms big changes to global trading rules

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Changes to rules around fishing subsidies and the supply of COVID-19 vaccines are due to take effect as a result of the Geneva Package, which was agreed at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) concluded its 12th Ministerial Conference by reaching an agreement on the Geneva Package, the first set of major changes to global trading rules in several years.

WTO members from across the globe attended the event, which was marked by round-the-clock negotiations and disagreements over the finer points of proposed alterations to trade regulations and protocols.

Originally due to run from June 12th to 15th, the conference continued until June 17th as delegates hammered out the details of the package, which included pledges to improve the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and tackle overfishing.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the WTO, celebrated the "unprecedented" agreements that were confirmed shortly before dawn on Friday June 17th. However, the announcements were not universally welcomed, with some pharmaceutical industry bodies and campaign groups particularly critical of the measures intended to boost the availability of vaccines.

Key pledges

The two most closely scrutinized deals in the package related to fishing subsidies and a partial waiver on intellectual property (IP) rights around COVID-19 vaccines.

A consensus to stop subsidies for illegal or unregulated fishing, or fishing of an already overfished stock, was only the second multilateral agreement on global trading rules reached in the WTO's 27-year history. It's also a more extensive accord than the first agreement, the aim of which was to reduce red tape.

Sources told Reuters that compromises had to be made to conclude the deal, after a number of demands from India raised the risk of talks reaching an impasse.

The deal had to be significantly modified to enable a consensus, but was still welcomed by the Pew Charitable Trusts' campaign to tackle damaging fisheries subsidies.

Isabel Jarrett, manager of the campaign, said this was a "turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global overfishing".

The other major headline was the passing of a deal confirming a partial IP waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, which has been the subject of debate between WTO members for nearly two years.

It's hoped the waiver will make it easier for developing countries to produce and export jabs to increase protection against the virus. However, the new agreement attracted criticism from various quarters.

Representatives of the pharmaceutical industry said there is already a surplus of vaccines, due to the difficulties governments and authorities have faced in distributing and administering them.

Stephen Ubl, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America trade group, said the waiver "won't help protect people against the virus". He also suggested the WTO should be focusing on "real issues affecting public health", such as addressing supply chain bottlenecks and reducing border tariffs on medicines.

Max Lawson, co-chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance, dismissed the newly announced deal as a "technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives".

However, some countries, including South Africa, celebrated the agreement and welcomed the opportunity for developing nations around the world to start producing their own COVID-19 vaccines. 

'Making a difference to lives'

From a global standpoint, the conference was widely viewed as a test of WTO members' ability to negotiate multilateral trade agreements and overcome differences during times of geopolitical and economic tension.

Speaking as the event came to a close, Ms Okonjo-Iweala said the agreements contained in the Geneva Package will "make a difference to the lives of people around the world" and demonstrate that the WTO is capable of "responding to the emergencies of our time".

She added: "They 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 growing strategic competition."

It was also acknowledged that the organization "can and must do more" to support global efforts to manage the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, face up to environmental challenges and drive socio-economic inclusion.