TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Sept20/10)
14 September 2020
Third World Network

Rules Chair to intensify fisheries talks amid COVID-19
Published in SUNS #9188 dated 14 September 2020

Geneva, 9 Sep (D. Ravi Kanth) – Despite the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, the chair of the Doha Rules negotiating body, Ambassador Santiago Wills from Colombia, has expressed his intention to intensify from 14 September the fisheries subsidies negotiations based on his draft consolidated text.

The draft text was found to be highly imbalanced and tilted against the interests of developing countries who are not responsible for the depletion of global fish stocks, said people familiar with the draft textural proposals.

Members had provided their preliminary comments on the Chair’s draft consolidated text on 21 July during which trade envoys from many developing countries expressed grave concerns over the proposals contained in the draft text on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, overfished stocks, and overfishing and overcapacity (OF&OC).

At a time when several countries are being subjected to lockdown conditions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, making air travel for capital-based officials to Geneva difficult, the chair has informed members that he will intensify meetings in a hybrid format next week involving the physical presence of only one person per delegation and the virtual presence of three other persons.

In an email sent to heads of delegation on 2 September, and seen by the SUNS, the chair did not mention whether the Covid-19 pandemic could hamper the travel of the capital-based officials.

He merely suggested that all precautions such as wearing face masks as well as social distancing are being taken at the Secretariat.

Ambassador Wills said that he is “mindful of the call by many delegates for flexibility in terms of substance and process, and for intensifying work,” arguing that “many delegates supported flexible configurations, modes and formats during and between meeting clusters, taking into account the ongoing pandemic and the related restrictions on travel to Geneva, participation in meetings and movement within the WTO.”

The chair said that the negotiations from 14 September marks “a new phase of work”, while acknowledging that the draft consolidated text is “incomplete, bracketed and with placeholders in several important areas.”

He said that members are free to offer “new texts” that will be added to the draft consolidated text, including where placeholders now appear on institutional arrangements and other issues.

Ambassador Wills said that members are free to amend the existing draft text, suggesting “how existing text could be amended; how any new proposals could be submitted and discussed; how I might take up the offers of help from some of you; and the role of facilitators going forward.”

In all probability, it appears to be difficult to conclude the negotiations on new fisheries subsidies disciplines by the end of this year, as proposed by global leaders in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.6, because of the huge volume of negotiating work to be conducted amid the worsening pandemic that has already claimed more than 800,000 lives.

Given the differences among members on how to conduct the negotiations, the chair said that “the September cluster will be structured as a mixture of time set aside for bilateral and other meetings organized by delegations, and time for plenary meetings.”

According to the chair, the details of the work program for September will include focused discussions on “some of the provisions under overfishing and overcapacity along with notifications and transparency because these were issues identified by some of you in July.”

He said that the “call for a flexible but focused work programme is accentuated by the wide-ranging views that were expressed in the July meeting on many areas of the consolidated draft document that I introduced to you on 25 June (RD/TN/RL/126 and 126/Add.1).”

In many areas of the draft text, the chair said “a lot of difficult work remains to be done, which means that we need to engage on the draft text in an efficient and constructive manner, while clearly understanding and bearing in mind that such engagement is without prejudice to any delegation’s views on any issue.”

Ambassador Wills argued that if members “are slow to make progress on one issue, this should not prevent work, and hopefully progress, in other areas,” a suggestion that is replete with adverse implications as witnessed in the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) trade negotiations.

The Chair’s proposal seems akin to what the United States had done during the WTO’s eighth ministerial meeting in Geneva in 2011, when Washington said areas in which progress can be made must be pursued first, resulting in the conclusion of the Trade Facilitation Agreement in 2013 while leaving the remaining issues of the Doha work program unaddressed, said negotiators, who asked not to be quoted.

“In short,” said Ambassador Wills, “a flexible and focused work programme should help us to clarify points of convergence and divergence based on the text, and to develop choices as needed for the ultimate decision-makers.”

The chair has suggested that members must discuss several provisions of “overcapacity and overfishing” in Article 5 of the draft consolidated text, including several provisions of the special and differential treatment to developing countries.

Several developing countries had pointed out at a Heads of Delegation (HoD) meeting on 21 July that the draft text did not resolve the concerns raised on overcapacity and overfishing as well as special and differential treatment.

The Doha fisheries subsidies negotiations at the WTO are being accelerated to meet the target set in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 that calls for prohibiting by 2020 certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminating subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refraining from introducing new such subsidies, while recognizing the need for appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least-developed countries.

At the HoD meeting on 21 July, South Africa had said that “new disciplines on all pillars of the mandate must target large-scale industrial fishing and not constrain the use of beneficial subsidies that contribute to the sustainability of fish stocks, safeguard food security and livelihoods of coastal communities, including policy space to develop their marine resources.” (See SUNS #9166 dated 23 July 2020).