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Source: MIL-OSI Submissions
Source: Professor Jane Kelsey

“Hard on the heels of the political deal-making by major powers and corporate lobbyists at the Glasgow climate conference, similar manoeuvres are shaping the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference scheduled for 29 November to 3 December in Geneva”, reports Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey, who closely follows developments at the WTO.  

The decision to hold an in-person negotiating conference of Ministers from 164 countries in the midst of a pandemic is controversial, with serious questions about the legitimacy of decisions that will be made in the absence of many, mainly developing countries’ trade ministers.

“This Ministerial is shaping up as the most important in its 16 years”, says Professor Kelsey.

“There is broad agreement that the WTO faces an existential crisis. Every part of its functions – negotiations, dispute settlement, notifications – is paralysed.”

The US continues to block appointments to the Appellate Body, which now has no judges.

Consensus decision-making is being circumvented by groups of more powerful Members, including New Zealand, who have set out in their own “plurilateral” processes without any mandate to do so.

The European Union, United Kingdom and Norway are blocking a proposed waiver of Big Pharma’s rights over Covid-related vaccines and technologies that are guaranteed under the WTO’s Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) – which, Professor Kelsey observes, is not even a real trade issue.

New Zealand’s Ambassador David Walker is facilitating a broader Covid-19 recovery plan that has become skewed towards the interests of richer countries, especially the “Ottawa Group” that includes New Zealand.

Reports from Geneva show the so-called “Walker process” has become a Trojan Horse to introduce a raft of new obligations through the back door. Least-developed and developing countries, and their priorities, have effectively been excluded.

Professor Kelsey has written to New Zealand’s trade ministers, warning that this is negatively affecting the country’s reputation at the WTO and urging them to intercede to advance a more balanced and equitable outcome. 

“The MC12 is heading for a show-down on these and other issues”, she said.

“More powerful countries are now proposing a broad-based WTO Reform agenda that would abandon consensus decision-making and let them redesign the Organization to pursue their objectives and interests.”

“Less powerful countries that already struggle to have their voices and interests heard would be even further marginalised.”

“Shamefully, this strategy is being advanced in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic that has exposed the failings of a deeply integrated global trading system designed by powerful states for themselves and their corporations. That is what needs reform.”