News / 9 June 2022

Burghard Ilge and Fernando Hernandez: "This WTO conference will be more important than ever"

This week, Geneva will be the epicenter of world trade, as trade ministers and other representatives from around the world gather for the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference. Liesje Schreinemacher, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, is present with a delegation. Our colleague Burghard Ilge is joining as an official member of the delegation, to represent civil society organisations. Colleague Fernando Hernandez will also travel to Geneva, to follow and try to influence the negotiations from outside the conference room together with other civil society organisations from around the world.

In the WTO, trade ministers and authorities from around the world meet to discuss and define the frameworks and guidelines for trade in goods and services. Such rules have global implications for the well-being of billions of people. In the coming weeks, tough negotiations will take place on, among other things, fisheries subsidies, agriculture, the WTO rules on intellectual property – more topical than ever since the start of the COVID pandemic – and the reform of the WTO itself. According to Burghard and Fernando, this WTO summit will become more important than ever before.

What exactly is that summit, what is the goal and who generally goes there?

Burghard: "The WTO consists of different parts and has consultation structures at various levels. The ministerial conference, which we are now going to, is the most important of these. All important decisions about the WTO are taken there. Negotiations are among other things about new WTO rules, all in the field of trade, of course, the name says it all. A new round of negotiations, the so-called Doha Development Round, was launched in 2001. That round is still ongoing, no agreement has yet been reached. Various topics such as trade and agriculture are negotiated, but the main aim of this particular 'round' is to address the problems developing countries face as a result of the current WTO agreements."

Fernando: "Unfortunately, little progress has been made in these negotiations in recent years, mainly because the richer countries seem less and less willing to continue the negotiations on the Doha development agenda. An example of this is the refusal of the rich countries to temporarily lift patents on COVID vaccines, which are covered by the WTO.

Burghard, you are a member of the delegation: what does that mean?

Burghard: "Yes, that's right. The Dutch government always includes three advisors in its government delegation to the ministerial conference: one from the business community, one from the trade unions and one from the NGOs. The Dutch government delegation can consult these advisors in case specific questions would arise during the meeting. As a member of the delegation, I am not allowed to speak with the press or participate in public events organised by civil society organisations. I am actually a kind of messenger: I talk to the civil society organisations and try to understand what their positions and needs are with regard to the issues at hand, which I will then convey to the Dutch delegation as best I can.

And Fernando, so you're part of the civil society group?

Fernando: "Yes, that's right. I follow the negotiations on a big screen, together with a large group of representatives from other civil society organisations from around the world. We are in constant consultation and based on what is discussed we formulate our common positions. We then try to convey this to the press and to the various delegations, so we will also work very well with NGO advisors, such as Burghard for the Netherlands. The participation of NGOs is very important, as what is being negotiated has enormous consequences for human rights, the climate and food security, to name just a few examples. Often the trade ministers are mouthpieces for the interests of business lobbyists and not those of civil society. It is very important that we serve as a counterbalance through our participation, lobbying and advocacy."

What is your main message at this particular WTO meeting?

Fernando: "It is time to recognise that our current free trade system has widened the global inequality gap, decimated local economies, and increased poverty, hunger and insecurity. There is much that the WTO can do, for example in the field of intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, this has also become very clear during the COVID crisis: because of the strict rules under the WTO, the so-called TRIPS, countries that don't have patents on vaccines and medicines are not allowed to produce these themselves. They are completely dependent on the expensive and often scarce supply from the countries that do have these patents, usually the richer countries. Ironically, the production of vaccines and medicines often takes place in the poorer countries in the Southern Hemisphere, but are destined for the richer countries. What civil society organisations from around the world want is a temporary lift of intellectual property rights under the WTO, a 'TRIPS waiver'. That way, in principle all countries could produce enough vaccine and medication or get it cheaply. The EU, and especially the Netherlands, is obstructing this. The Piri-motion, which was adopted in the Dutch Parliament at the beginning of this year, does not seem to help much in the EU's position in the negotiations on a COVID TRIPS waiver."

Burghard: "There should also be exceptions to the ban on stockholding and buying up food stocks. Governments in developing countries sometimes do this, to support their small farmers and to be able to offer food aid to their poorer population. The WTO does not allow that because it is seen as illegal agricultural subsidy. But our main concern is that the argument of crisis will be misused to quickly push through agreements that are unfavorable for developing countries. That has happened before and that is a real possibility."

Are civil society organisations actually listened to at the WTO summit?

Fernando: "Well, not really. And this is very problematic: on the one hand, civil society has no formal say in what is at stake, and on the other, the current global crisis requires that voices from below are also taken into account in the WTO. The WTO does provide briefings for civil society organisations during the conference on what is happening and how the negotiations are going, but civil society organisations must convey their concerns and wishes via the governments of countries. That is not possible directly at the WTO. As a group we sometimes try to generate attention for the issues we are concerned about through the international press or through symbolic actions, in order to increase the pressure a bit."

What do you think should happen during the WTO meeting, when will you go home feeling satisfied?

Burghard: "The question is how ambitious we can be. To start with, the countries that are now negotiating among themselves in separate groups on topics for which the WTO has no mandate, should stop doing so. They should invest in the broad negotiation process between all WTO members. Separate, bilateral negotiations between countries or groups of countries are prohibited under the WTO in any case, but it happens on a large scale, again especially between the richer countries. Another hot and controversial issue is the subsidies on fisheries. I would be satisfied if the new WTO agreements on this matter were in line with processes of UN agencies that combat over-fishing, instead of undermining those processes. At this moment, the WTO mainly encourages large-scale fishing, and that has to change, in general everyone agrees on this. But in the eagerness to do something about it, it seems that the new rules that are now being negotiated, will make it more difficult for developing countries to support and develop their own, often small-scale, fisheries sector. This could never have been the goal."

Fernando: "For me, the interests of the planet and the people who live on it must come first. The WTO must clearly show at this conference that this is indeed the case. And, of course: the US, the EU and other countries such as Switzerland must stop blocking the request for a TRIPS waiver for COVID vaccines and medications, which is supported by a large majority of WTO members. Even though we have learned from experience and do not have much hope that the agreements made on this conference will be helpful for developing countries, we continue to exert pressure to make the WTO move in the right direction. If we wouldn't do that, the balance would tip even more in favor of the big companies and wealthier WTO members such as the Netherlands."

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