After re-scheduling the 12th Ministerial Conference or MC12 twice, the MC 12 was initially scheduled to take place in June 2020 in Kazakhstan but was postponed after the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic. Following this, WTO members agreed to meet from 30 November to 3 December 2021, in Geneva, but the Omicron variant of Covid-19 forced them again to schedule the meeting on 12–15 June 2022. The conference is being called at a time when the global economy is passing through a tough time owing to various factors such as the crisis in Ukraine, the spread of covid in parts of China, and political unrest in South Asia, among others.
It is a time when the WTO is struggling to remain relevant as a supreme trade body. The negotiating arm of the organisation is in peril, after delivering the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) since its establishment. The dispute settlement mechanism of the organisation is also in crisis as the US blocked the reappointment of judges. The preceding Ministerial Conference, held in 2017, failed to unite members on continuing with the Doha Development Agenda (DDA). Developing countries like China and Turkey blame the body for being largely dominated by traditional economic powers like the US and the EU. Members, especially from the developing world, like India, South Africa, and China, feel that the WTO has largely failed to protect their interests. Despite these concerns, members are still hopeful of resolving issues through discussion and negotiation under the ambit of the WTO. Their faith in the WTO is evident from their agreement to meet at the MC12. India also expects the upcoming conference to offer a solution to some of the leading issues that are not only important to it but also to the world. Among the many issues that India attaches high importance to are e-commerce, fishery subsidy, public stockholding, and IPR waiver for the Covid-19 vaccine.
India expects MC12 to deliver a permanent solution to the issue of tariffs on digital trade. The discussion on digital trade is stuck in the WTO as members are divided on the issue of imposing tariffs on the goods and services traded electronically. The first set of countries, primarily representing the developed world, favour tariff-free digital trade while the other group, led by India, opposes the idea, arguing that with the innovation and development in the electronic industry, so many goods like books, music, etc. that were traded physically earlier can now be traded digitally. Importantly, developing countries earn a greater amount of revenue from tariffs than their developed counterparts.
Keeping this crucial sector outside the purview of tariffs would result in a huge loss to the public exchequer.
Subsidies on fisheries and marine products are another pressing issue to be discussed in the MC12. India, in a recent proposal, reiterated the issue of special and differential treatment provisions (S&DT) mentioned in MC11. India proposed that the prohibition of unreported and unregulated fishing should not apply to subsidies granted or maintained by developing countries, including LDCs, for fishing within their territorial waters and their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as well as the high seas for a certain period. India’s concern is shared by many African countries, where fisheries and marine products remain a prominent source of income.
India, along with a large group of like-minded countries, has been spearheading the demand for waiving patent rights on covid-19 vaccines to make them accessible to vulnerable populations in low and middle-income countries. India’s demand is aimed at a uniform, non-discriminatory regime for people who have been fully vaccinated. However, India’s proposal has been in deadlock due to opposition from a few powerful industrialised countries. India anticipates the WTO would take this novel decision to waive off the patents for the covid vaccine, which would benefit a large section of poor and low-income countries around the world.
India, along with the G33 group of developing nations, has stepped up the pressure at the WTO for a permanent solution to public stock holding programs. Public stockholding programmes are government schemes to purchase, stockpile, and distribute food to people in need. The WTO prohibits the practise of arguing it as trade-distorting. India justifies the practise and claims it is crucial to ensure food security. The WTO relaxed the practise under an interim arrangement called the “peace clause,” devised in 2013. But many countries find it difficult to apply the clause as it necessitates a multitude of notifications. India demands a permanent solution and expects MC12 to deliver the same.
Despite raising numerous questions about the legitimacy of the institution, members are hopeful of solving their problems through discussion at this global forum. Overcoming so many hurdles and postponing the meeting twice. It is now up to the WTO and its key functionaries to take the necessary steps so that the members and stakeholders can continue to have faith in it and its role in maintaining a rule-based trading system.
The author is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.