What impact will the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference have on people and the planet?

June 30, 2022: Earlier this month, trade ministers from 164 member states of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) came together at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) to negotiate new rules to govern a number of important areas of trade.

What were the results of the MC12, and what impact will it have on people, the planet, and sustainable development? Here’s what you need to know:

1. A weak result on COVID19 medicine monopolies:

As we told the press, the MC12 outcome on COVID19 medical monopolies was disappointing. This is because the final agreement to temporarily lift patent monopolies on COVID19 vaccines did not go far enough to achieve global equity in access to vaccines, tests, and treatments.

Owing to the lobbying of Big Pharma and the road-blocking by wealthy countries like the EU, UK and Switzerland, the decision applies only to vaccines, excludes other forms of intellectual property, and contains some restrictions which are even more onerous than existing WTO rules.

In response to this ‘cop out’, nearly 300 public health, human rights and union organisations from across the globe criticised the decision and called for stronger government action in the wake of the weak decision.

2. More work needed to prohibit subsidies to unsustainable fishing:

As the global regulator of trade, the WTO has the power (and a UN-ordered mandate) to tackle unsustainable fishing subsidies. The MC12 agreed on a new set of rules that prohibit subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; prohibit subsidies to the fishing of overfished stocks; and prohibit subsidies to fishing on the high seas outside the control of regional fisheries management organisations.

But there remains further work to be done to strike a comprehensive deal within 4 years’ time (lest even this interim agreement be scrapped). Fisher advocates argue that the agreement lets the biggest subsidisers off the hook by allowing them to maintain subsidies if the fishing is conducted within country’s national waters, and if they can demonstrate that there are ‘sustainable’ measures in place. They also argue that the specific needs of developing countries were not adequately addressed by some temporary support measures and call for greater technical and financial support to developing countries for the burdensome requirements of implementing, monitoring, controlling, and surveilling the agreement.

3. Root causes of food insecurity overlooked:

For years, developing countries have been seeking a WTO agreement that would permit them to reserve public stockholdings of food and grain in order to boost production and feed their poorest citizens. Instead of addressing this issue, the MC12 sought to tighten export bans on food, which some countries use to prevent critical food stocks from being sold abroad to the highest bidder.

Advocates argue that the MC12 outcomes on agriculture ignore the fundamental problems driving food inflation and insecurity, such as excessive subsidies to agribusiness in wealthy countries like the US and EU, speculative trading, and the over-use of grains for fuel and animal feed.

4. Continuing threats to multilateralism and consensus:

After years of roadblocks and break-downs in negotiations, the WTO Director General sought from the MC12 a mandate to launch a process of structural reform. This new mandate, however, fails to incorporate the development agenda, and merely instructs officials to continue working on it to ‘report on progress’ (rather than conclude it) by the next ministerial conference.

Trade justice advocates warn that any reform of the WTO must bring an end to the practice of “Joint Sectoral Initiatives” in which a minority group of mainly high-income countries meet outside of WTO formal structures to reach agreement on proposals to which the majority of developing countries are then pressured to agree. This erodes the principles of consensus and multilateralism, and  has allowed wealthy nations to bypass WTO decision-making bodies and  enable more corporate influence on the WTO. The meeting also postponed addressing the paralysis in the WTO disputes system caused by the US blocking of appointments to the dispute appeals panels of the WTO.  For a full list of MC12 decisions and declarations, see here.

The WTO needs fundamental change to a fairer multilateral system that would give developing countries more negotiating power and be based on commitments to human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability. Nearly all governments agreed to these principles through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, but they have not been integrated into WTO goals or practice. A blueprint for achieving these goals can be found in "A New Multilateralism for Shared Prosperity: Geneva Principles for a Green New Deal" published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

  • To read Deborah James’ analysis of the WTO MC12, click here.