A new package of agreements signed during a ministerial conference organised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva last month will allow Africa to access Covid-19 vaccines more readily, stem illegal fishing in its territorial waters, and get emergency food aid. Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was inspiring in her closing remarks when she said the package “will make a difference to the lives of people around the world” and that the agreements “show the world that WTO members can come together, across geopolitical fault lines, to address problems of the global commons”.
The Geneva package, as the agreements collectively have come to be called, prohibit member countries from imposing export controls on food commodities procured by the UN World Food Programme (WFP). It comes at a time when the threat of food insecurity has become acute in Africa owing to the sharp increases in food and fertiliser prices resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February; a recent UN assessment estimates that 345 million people on the continent face “severe” food insecurity.
The decision related to Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) authorises the use of patent required to produce COVID-19 vaccines without the consent of the “right holder” – typically a pharmaceutical firm that has developed the vaccines. This will allow smaller pharmaceutical firms in Africa to make generic versions of patented vaccines without the threat of being sued by big pharma for breaching intellectual property (IP) rights. The deal was pushed by African governments, which have calling for the waiver. Drugmakers are ostensibly unhappy over the decision.
There was also unhappiness of a different kind on the part of non-governmental organisations like the Health Justice Initiative (HJI) in South Africa, which pointed out that President Cyril Ramaphosa had initially sought a full waiver on IP of all Covid medical technologies. In this view, developing countries were pressed by the United States and European countries into accepting a diluted deal.
The fisheries agreement addresses those subsidies that “contribute to overcapacity and overfishing” and goes further than the other agreements by adopting a protocol that amends the Marrakesh agreement (though, like any WTO agreement, it is binding on a member state only once it is accepted). The protocol bars a member state from paying subsidies to the operators of vessels that engage in illegal fishing. It also forbids the paying of subsidies activity that results in depletion of fish stocks. Overfishing by foreign trawlers has decimated African fish stocks. It is estimated that that as much as 40% of all fish caught in West Africa is illegal and unreported.
But as with the TRIPS waiver there is resistance to the lifting of subsidies to the fishing industry by many member countries. The Indian Minister of Fisheries, Parshottam Rupala, went on record in July saying his government had no plan to scrap fisheries subsidies. Sri Lanka routinely accuses Indian fishermen of fishing in its territorial waters. There has been no public reaction so far by China, Japan and the European Union (EU). Together they account for most of the illegal fishing taking place around the world.
The commitments made as part of the Geneva Package are positive, as is the spirit in which the conference took place. But the dilution of developing countries’ demands on TRIPS as part of the process, and the reactions seen since it ended, show that even the modest achievements on behalf of LDCs are sure to be challenged.
The conference declared its commitment to having a “well-functioning” dispute settlement system by 2024. Such a system might be of greater benefit to African countries than the piecemeal and contested agreements concluded in Geneva.
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