The Chief of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo, has called upon member states to ratify the fisheries subsidies agreement. However, Pakistan may not be on the list of ratifying nations due to a constitutional limit that bars the interim government from entering into a long-term treaty. Ngozi has termed the ratification of the agreement as her topmost priority for the upcoming Ministerial Conference aimed at ending overfishing and the depletion of oceans.

In an interaction with a group of journalists from developing countries, the Director-General of the WTO urged member states, including Pakistan, to ratify the fisheries subsidies agreement so that it can enter into force next year. The 13th Ministerial Conference is taking place in the United Arab Emirates in February next year.

The first deliverable for the 13th Ministerial Conference is entering into force the fisheries subsidies agreement, said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. “Our oceans are 50% overfished. There is an urgency as we cannot waste too much time in ratifying this agreement.” So far, 43 members have ratified the agreement, but we need 110 states to ratify it before making it effective, she added. She said that the process of ratification was gaining pace.

Governments around the world are providing over $22 billion in subsidies that increase the capacity to overfish in seas. The consensus agreement prohibits subsidies for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, for overfishing, and fishing of unmanaged stocks in the high seas.

Pakistan cannot ratify the agreement at this stage as the interim government does not have a mandate to enter into a long-term treaty, said a Geneva-based Pakistani official. The interim government’s maximum three-month constitutional term ends on November 9, but the elections are unlikely to take place before that due to other considerations.

Pakistan emphasises the need for responsible subsidies that do not contribute to overfishing while considering the “polluter pays” concept for nations providing excessive subsidies. It also advocates for special and differential treatment, excluding large-scale industrial distant water fishing nations and allowing subsidies for low-income fishing activities.

Pakistan also wants prioritisation of capacity building, sustainable practices, and tailored support for developing countries. However, the DG said that the facility for capacity building can only be offered to states ratifying the agreement. Her goal is to set up a $20 million fund for this purpose.

She said that the WTO also wants to begin negotiations for the second phase of the fisheries subsidies agreement to improve the June 2022 version. She also spoke about challenges being faced by the multilateral trading system.

“People tend to take trade for granted. Seventy-five percent of the global trade of today takes place on WTO’s Most Favoured Nations terms, meaning it is taking place under all the rules agreed with the WTO,” said Ngozi. “We are not so concerned about the bilateral and regional trade agreements because three-quarters of the World Trade is still taking place under WTO terms,” she added.

The geopolitical tensions have overshadowed global trade initiatives, prompting many to question the relevance of the multilateral trading system. “If we remove WTO rules today, then what would you have? There would be no agreements underpinning world trade, which will result in an anarchic situation,” said the DG. “Some of the other standards on which trade is done, such as technical standards and food standards, all come from WTO. The bilateral and regional agreements are patterned on WTO rules, and some of them are quite innovative that are built on WTO rules but have other chapters added.”

She said that despite supply chain challenges during Covid-19 and the Ukraine War, trade proved to be really resilient. The multilateral system delivered vaccines after the initial hiccups. “Without the trading system, we could never have this exchange of vaccines between producers and end-users. At a time when food inflation is high and people have not been able to import from the Black Sea region due to the Ukraine war, supplies are ensured from other regions,” she added. Europe has found energy supplies from other parts when they could not get them from Russia.

She said that there is an atmosphere of pessimism, the world is fragmented, but we are not at the point where the trading system is falling apart. “We will focus on issues during the 13th MC that the WTO can deliver.”

WTO reforms are needed to make the dispute settlement mechanism operational, which is a big deliverable for the next meeting, but it’s not easy, said the DG. She listed agriculture as another deliverable and hoped that some breakthrough can be made despite “very tough” issues. Some members want to work on distortive subsidies, and others want to discuss the issue of stockpiles. Some countries only want market access, she added.

It has been 22 years of negotiations on agriculture, and we have to ask ourselves how do we break the back of it and try to deliver something that is acceptable to the developing world. She said that developing countries are expecting to get benefits from the WTO, and we have to deliver on it. She said that Bangladesh will be upgraded from the least developed country status to a developing country by 2026.

The issue of further extension in e-commerce moratorium for not charging custom duties on electronic transactions will be on the next meeting’s agenda. She said that trade is going digital, and developing countries are keen to earn additional revenues. The Director-General is going to introduce deliberative sessions to provide a platform for member countries to discuss different issues.