With days left to go before its long-awaited Twelfth Ministerial Conference, the WTO announced on Friday (26th November) that it would postpone the event due to the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron Covid-19 variant. Recent measures introduced by the Swiss government impose quarantine restrictions on several nations, including Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel and a number of countries in southern Africa, which would have prevented these delegations from attending MC12.
The conference, which was expected to run from 30th November to 3rd December, would have been the prime occasion for trade ministers to discuss several prominent issues, including the latest draft agreement on fisheries subsidies, which aims to eliminate the use of harmful subsidies for certain types of fishing activities. There was also expected to be a discussion on agriculture as well as thematic events on a variety of topics, ranging from trade and environment to development needs.
During the meeting on Friday, Members acknowledged their disappointment in having to postpone the conference, but recognized that it was the right decision given the unprecedented turn of events. With the last Ministerial Conference having taken place in 2017 in Buenos Aires, Members are looking forward to resuming negotiations on a ministerial level. In the meantime, the WTO Director-General called on Members to continue the negotiating momentum in spite of the situation and make progress towards achieving cleaner text to present to Ministers.
This occasion marks the second time that the pandemic has led to the postponement of MC12. Initially, it was scheduled to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Given the situation, there is no news on whether MC12 will continue to be held in Geneva. On Friday, several delegations suggested that it could be held virtually if Members were able to achieve convergence, although other Members have previously expressed support for the Ministerial Conference to be held in person. Since then, several delegations have proposed holding MC12 in March 2022, if conditions allow. However, a definitive date for the next conference is yet to be announced.
In the interim, Members will continue to engage on pressing trade issues. It is hoped that they will advance with negotiations on the fisheries subsidies text. The latest draft was released on 24th November and represents considerable progress, although several critical issues remain.
The Joint Initiative on Services Domestic Regulation is also expecting an outcome in time for MC12. Sixty delegations currently participating in the negotiations have circulated schedules of new commitments, with several Members expanding their commitments to cover new sectors, including environmental services. Participating Members will also apply the principle of gender non-discrimination to their authorization procedures.
In spite of these advancements, there is much work to be done as Members continue to debate whether a TRIPS waiver is the solution to expand equitable access to vaccines. Due to the lack of consensus, Members are not at the stage of text-based negotiations. A number of delegations are of the view that the existing TRIPS framework is sufficient for Members and the focus should be on facilitating trade, for instance by lifting export restrictions. Additional issues to be addressed include the future of special and differential treatment, as well as the prospect of WTO reform and how it should be approached.