New WTO Chief Sets Priorities For Rescheduled Summit

By Alex Lawson
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Law360 (March 1, 2021, 10:53 AM EST) -- World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began her tenure on Monday with a call for members to prioritize fishery subsidy talks and a repair of the WTO's legal wing ahead of its ministerial conference, which has been rescheduled for November.

The WTO's biennial summit — often used as a soft deadline for members to complete negotiations or commit to new ones — was initially scheduled for last summer in Kazakhstan, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference will now kick off the week of Nov. 29 in the WTO's home base of Geneva.

In her first address to the WTO's General Council, Okonjo-Iweala stressed that while members now have more time to deliver concrete results, they should aim to complete work on pressing areas long before the conference itself to ensure the best outcome.

"We want a recipe for success not failure," she said.

The director-general specifically urged members to finalize an agreement to reduce certain fisheries subsidies by the middle of the year. Regarding the WTO's dispute settlement system and the currently dormant Appellate Body, Okonjo-Iweala said members should begin structuring a "work program" on pressing WTO legal issues that can be endorsed at the summit.

WTO members completed the most recent round of fisheries subsidy talks in February. Broadly, the effort looks to reduce government support for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and for subsidies that contribute to overfishing. The talks have lagged amid disagreements about how to accommodate developing nations.

The discord over the WTO's dispute settlement system stems from the Trump administration's blocking of Appellate Body judges to fill vacancies on Geneva's highest legal body. The U.S. expressed deep reservations about Appellate Body practices and called for a new approach.

The Biden administration has pledged to be a cooperative partner in that effort, but has still yet to lift the prior regime's block, and the Appellate Body remains unable to take up new cases.

Okonjo-Iweala also said the WTO must assert itself as a crucial part of the COVID-19 vaccination effort, nodding to the ongoing disagreements over whether to suspend global intellectual property rules as a means of improving vaccine distribution.

India and South Africa, have led the charge for waiving certain provisions of the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. They have been met with resistance by the U.S., EU and other nations with powerful pharmaceutical industries, who say the agreement gives companies room to innovate.

But advocacy groups led by Médecins Sans Frontières have begun ramping up the pressure to back the waiver. In a letter sent to President Joe Biden on Friday, MSF and hundreds of other advocacy groups blasted the U.S. for backing IP rules that they say create barriers to global health access.

"The TRIPS waiver would remove a key obstacle to governments and manufacturers worldwide accessing the technology needed to invest in making COVID vaccines and treatments as rapidly as possible, in as many places as possible, for the billions who still need them," the groups wrote.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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