WTO MC11 negotiations: prospects for fish, women and non-tariff measures

06 December 2017

With the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference right around the corner, UNCTAD member States discuss progress on negotiations on fisheries subsidies, gender and non-tariff measures.

With the World Trade Organization's 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) set to kick off on 10 December in Buenos Aires, government officials attending an international meeting on trade and development reported on the state of play of negotiations on fisheries subsidies, as well as their expectations for discussions on trade and gender and on non-tariff measures.

The officials were attending UNCTAD's annual Trade and Development Commission, which convened last week in Geneva to examine how the multilateral trading system could better serve the international development agenda.

Given that MC11 was less than two weeks away, the commission provided a timely platform for UNCTAD member States to discuss some of the issues under negotiation and to build some consensus ahead of Buenos Aires.

"UNCTAD offers you an opportunity here…for exchanges, to try among yourselves to build consensus, to build partnerships, and to use the debates this week in your missions for preparing your countries positions at the WTO," UNCTAD Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said in her opening speech.

Here are some main points from the discussions.

Fisheries subsidies: outcome likely, but will it have teeth?

Government officials said they remain hopeful for an agreement on new rules to address the harmful effects of certain subsidies given to fishing industries.

But as negotiations enter the final hours, the question was whether or not the outcome would address all the points under Target 14.6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which tackles the issue of fishing subsidies head on.

Target 14.6 aims to achieve the following by 2020:

  • Prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing

  • Eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

  • Refrain from introducing new such subsidies

  • Secure appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries as an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation

According to the Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the WTO, David Walker, member countries appeared to agree on the need to end subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing.

"This shouldn't really be a surprise given that these are activities that shouldn't even be occurring, let alone being actively supported by government funding," Mr. Walker said.

"But it is significant that the vast majority of the WTO membership not only supports such prohibitions but has articulated how to translate these into WTO rules," he said. "The result is that ministers will be for the first time looking to take the discussion forward on substantial commitments in this area."

The other area of convergence among negotiators, Mr. Walker said, was the issue of subsidies to fish stocks that are already overfished.

Divergence, however, had emerged on the issues of subsidies that contribute to the overcapacity of fishing fleets and to overfishing in general, as well as on the topic of special and differential treatment for developing countries.

"Clearly though we need to do more than just on IUU fishing and overfished stocks in order to implement the SDG target [14.6]. Specifically, subsidies contributing to overfishing and overcapacity also need addressing more comprehensively," he said.

According to UN Environment, 90% of global fish stocks are now fully fished, depleted, or slowly recovering. Harmful subsidies, estimated at between US$20 to 35 billion per year, compound the problem of overfishing because they make it cheaper for industrial fishing fleets to operate.

Overfishing doesn't harm only the environment, it puts at risk the livelihoods of the 3 billion or so people worldwide who depend on marine and coastal resources for their well-being.

WTO members have been discussing fisheries subsidies since 2001, as part of the Doha Round. But in 2015 the issue took on a new sense of urgency with the adoption of the SDGs and Target 14.6.

"If at MC11 we can't prohibit all subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, then at least we must stop things from getting any worse," Mr. Walker said. "We therefore need to be prepared to implement a standstill commitment that leaders made originally at Rio+20 and then reaffirmed in SDG 14.6 until we do deliver the full target."

"That also needs to be complimented by a commitment to complete negotiations for any remaining element to be delivered at MC12, which is scheduled to take place 2019, still in time to fully deliver by 2020."

Gender: Recognition that trade affects men and women differently

Moving on to trade and gender, government officials announced "some very good news": more than one-third of WTO members had already backed a ministerial declaration on trade and women's economic empowerment.

Though not binding, they said, the declaration -- in line with SDG 5 on gender equality and women's empowerment -- will provide a framework for those WTO members that would like to adopt gender-responsive trade policies.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to find out that women's economic empowerment has a positive impact on economic growth. It simply makes sense," said Harald Aspelund, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iceland to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva.

"It has been estimated the US$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by closing the gender gap," Mr. Aspelund said, adding that although women make up half the world's population, they only generate 37% of global GDP and are at the helm of only 15% of exporting firms worldwide.

Although the declaration showed great progress in getting the world to recognize that trade affects men and women differently, some officials pointed out that about two-thirds of world leaders still hadn't signed on.

"There's a bit of suspicion," said Yvette Stevens, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva.

Ms. Stevens said that some governments were concerned that the issue of gender would end up becoming yet another non-tariff barrier to trade.

She said some had asked, "Are we going to be told that unless we meet gender issues we're not going to be able to trade?"

"This is the concern," Ms. Stevens said. "And I want to lay away the fears … It is a non-binding document … It is to focus attention as we're moving to the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, to see how gender and trade feature in the whole implantation of that agenda."

The official presentation of the declaration is expected on 12 December, during the one-day business forum organized by the Argentine government.

Non-tariff measures: agreement unlikely, though consensus is budding

Given the significant decline in tariffs over the years, attention has turned to so-called non-tariff measures (NTMs), the catch-all term used to designate everything from sanitary and phytosanitary measures to voluntary standards such as organic labels.

Discussions on NTMs in the WTO take place within the non-agricultural market access negotiations.

According to UNCTAD statistics, NTMs now affect 96% of global trade. For the most part, that's a good thing: such measures help protect the environment and contribute to consumer's well-being.

But some officials said that at times these measures could be protectionism in disguise, and that their proliferation has become costly for exporters, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries.

"Quotas, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, reply to objectives of governments but also carry in their wake costs that can be prohibitive when it comes to having certificates," said Victoria Francolino, Deputy Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the WTO.

"SMEs located in developing countries can be doubly affected by the adverse impact," Ms. Francolino said.

"The companies from developing countries do not have the necessary infrastructure to carry out the necessary steps to evaluate. And at the same time, the public services are less well trained and less able to give this type of support and advice."

For small businesses, access to information is the most important issue, according to Paolo Garzotti, Deputy Head of the Permanent Mission of the European Union to the WTO.

For this reason, Mr. Garzotti said, the EU has put on the table a proposal that draws on the trading bloc's own experiences with NTMs, even though he doesn't expect a concrete outcome in Buenos Aires.

"What we aim for on NTMs for Buenos Aires is not necessarily for finding an agreement on the text that we've put on the table. This is something that we realize needs more discussions. Our goal is that this is on the radar screen for the ministers, and that we have guidance from the ministers to continue work in this direction."

He said the proposal, put forth with Australia, Canada, Hong Kong China, Korea, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, aims for the following:

  • To have all available on the Internet all information on NTMs, such as product requirements, customs duties and quotas

  • To have a global web portal with a one-stop-shop for exporters

  • To have all final NTMs notified to the WTO -- right now countries are required only to notify the draft measures

  • To give stakeholders, notably SMEs, the opportunity to provide input during the development of major regulatory measures