Blog / 14 April 2020

Stop WTO talks until everyone can take full part in them again

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is often seen as an institution in crisis, powerless and no longer relevant, and especially after US president Donald Trump decided in 2019 to pull the plug on one of the WTO’s most important bodies (the one dealing with trade disputes). Now, more than 150 civil society organisations, networks and interest groups from around the world have signed an urgent letter to WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo, because they are seriously concerned about the state of affairs within the organization.

The WTO is most certainly relevant. A new round of negotiations was even planned to start in June 2020. When the meeting was cancelled because of the COVID-19pandemic, it was a relief especially to poorer member states, which are currently having to devote a disproportionate share of their scarce resources to combat the crisis.

Recently, however, it emerged that the richer member states of the WTO wanted the negotiations to go ahead, but online. That was bad news for the large group of poorer countries. Even in normal circumstances,these countries are at a disadvantage because they often lack the resources to take part in physical negotiations. It will be simply impossible for many of them to take part in online discussions.

This is the reason for the letter. The 150 signatories are concerned that those members who are able talk around the digital table will take insufficient account, if at all, of the interests of countries that are unable to play a full part in the negotiations. The letter calls for the WTO to postpone the negotiations until all members are able to participate in them fully.

As long as the WTO is making important decisions, that must occur in a decent and acceptable manner. Poor countries must not be excluded from the negotiations in any way. Both ENDS has been calling for greater attention to be paid to the interests of developing countries for many years and is bringing the concerns of civil society and local movements in these countries to the attention of delegations from the Dutch government and the European Commission to the WTO.

At this difficult time, there are issues on the agenda that are of great importance to poor people in developing countries. Talks should now be taking place on restricting subsidies to the fishing sector. That is a complex issue because, on the one hand, it is crucial that something is done about the over-fishing of the world’s oceans, and lowering or stopping subsidies would seem an obvious step to take. On the other hand, however, too few of the benefits of the fishery sector remain in poor countries, because they often do not have a developed industrial fishing sector.

Large groups of poor people in these countries depend on fishing for their livelihoods. Fishers and their families need support from their governments to hold their own against the large-scale international fishing industry, which is the major cause of over-fishing.

This is therefore a very important dossier, especially for the least developed countries in Africa and small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific regions. It must not be allowed to happen that these countries are unable to take part in negotiations that are vital to their survival. We therefore fully support this call to suspend the negotiations temporarily.


Update 30 april 2020:

Azevedo responded to the letter five days after it was sent, unprecedentedly fast for an organisation like the WTO. The contents of the response were, however, disappointing. What it comes down to is that the WTO wishes to continue with the negotiations, ignoring the objections.

Therefore, a  new letter was sent, this time to all  Ministers of Trade of WTO member countries, to call for a halt of negotiations.  This new letter was signed by no less than 
400 organisations, networks and groups from all over the world, and was made public today. 


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