WTO Ends Ministerial With No Agreements, Modest Treatment Of IPPublished on 2 December 2009 @ 10:39 pm
By William New, Intellectual Property Watch
The World Trade Organization today wrapped up its first ministerial meeting in four years with no decisions or breakthroughs (as expected) but an informal agreement to consider by March whether members can complete the longstanding round of negotiations in 2010. Meanwhile, intellectual property issues played a tangential role in ministers’ discussions, but made several notable appearances.
In response to the global economic crisis, governments plan only to conduct a “stock-taking exercise” of negotiating positions by March, but it is unclear what the fate of the round will be if it is determined at that time they cannot finish in 2010. Ministers agreed that the next ministerial meeting should be at the end of 2011, but did not say where it would be held.
The closing chair’s statement offered a list of issues countries said still matter to them. And a number of delegates mentioned the importance of the United States showing leadership in the coming months.
Ministers took two minor actions, extending a moratorium on “non-violation and situation” complaints under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and extending a moratorium on e-commerce taxes.
WTO rules allow complaints about government measures or other situations that do not technically violate WTO agreements, but result in frustrated expected benefits of another member. WTO members have not been able to agree to allow this option under TRIPS, which deals with intangible goods and services.
An emerging IP-related issue in the WTO context is that of patents on environmental technologies needed to address climate change. Developed countries generally appeared to take the view that addressing the problem from a trade standpoint means opening markets to their exports, which assumes they will have patented technologies to sell. Some developing countries have shown concern about being restricted from using TRIPS flexibilities allowing the issuance of compulsory licences to obtain needed goods and services.
In global climate talks, nations have been at loggerheads over patents on clean technologies and the perceived need for compulsory licenses to obtain the necessary technologies.
It was noted by one participant that patents are not usually filed in least-developed countries anyway, leaving technologies from elsewhere open to the public domain and those poorest countries free to use them.
Generic Drug Seizures “Not TRIPS-Plus, But TRIPS-Illegal”
Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma in a press conference today spoke sharply against what he said has been a “deliberate and devious campaign by vested interests to confuse about Indian generics.”
Sharma said European countries are not in conformity with the TRIPS agreement because they have stopped legal shipments of Indian products passing through to developing countries. It’s not TRIPS-plus but TRIPS-illegal,” he said.
The shipments legitimate generic medicines detained in 2008 and early 2009 were destined for countries that critically need them, he said, adding, “Indian generics have made enormous contributions to saving lives.”
Multinational companies have put a stranglehold on shipments in order to stifle competition, as India is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical producers, including 20 percent of the world’s generics. The reasons for stopping the shipments (allegedly suspected counterfeits) are “totally unrelated.”
But he said India and the recipient countries like Brazil have been assured by European Union that they will remedy this, “so we will not have to take an action to safeguard our industry, which is one of the largest in world.” Sharma said the issue was triggered in South Africa in the 1990s and is continuing.
But India did not raise the generics shipment issue in bilateral meetings, he said.
Other IP Issues
Other intellectual property issues also came up during the WTO ministerial, though they were not in the mainstream discussions. The issues are a mandated register of geographical indications on wines and spirits, and the extension of the high level protection on wines and spirits to other products. In addition, there has been a push in recent years to amend the TRIPS agreement, as part of putting it in line with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), by requiring the disclosure of origin of genetic material in patent applications.
Sharma raised the CBD topic in his opening statement to the plenary, listing it with a series of other “major issues” like agricultural subsidies that he said, “need to be dealt with sympathetically as they have a major bearing on the development outcome of the round.”
Norway may have been the only developed country to mention the CBD issue, saying that the interests of developing countries need to be considered, including CBD.
The European Union mentioned in the working session that GIs would have to be part of any outcome, according to one source. Italy in its opening plenary statement highlighted the importance of the GI issue.
Morocco said in its opening plenary statement that GI protection is one of three critical issues, the other two being fisheries and cotton.
South-South Trade System Deal Outside WTO
Leading developing countries today announced a ministerial-level decision to “vastly expand” the coverage of trade under special preferences between developing countries. The announcement was received by some as a poke at the lack of progress at the higher profile World Trade Organization ministerial taking place across the United Nations plaza.
The decision on modalities under the Global System of Trade Preferences for cutting tariffs on trade between their countries will lead to reductions between 20 percent and 70 percent. It also puts the negotiations on track for completion in 2010, according to Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which is assisting with the talks.
“The ministerial declaration you just adopted is a major milestone in the history of the GSTP,” he said. “The decision on modalities that you adopted today is unprecedented.” Supachai is also a former WTO director general.
The negotiations are referred to as the Sao Paulo round, launched in 2004 at the sixth quadrennial conference of UNCTAD held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There are 43 member states in the GSTP, with 22 participating in the Sao Paulo round, according to an UNCTAD press release. The 2 December ministerial was held at UNCTAD, in parallel to the WTO ministerial.
In addition, on 30 November, ministers from India, the Southern African Customs Union and the Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur) held a landmark meeting as well, they said.
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk told a closing press briefing that he would like to bring a favourable trade deal back to the US Congress before asking for renewal of presidential trade-negotiating authority, which has expired. The US delegation included staff from several House and Senate committees, he noted.
WTO Ministerial: Promises, Commitments, But…?
Speeches to the WTO plenary largely called for holding protectionism in check and re-commitment to completion of the Doha Round of negotiations started in 2001, with numerous calls from developing countries for rich countries to deliver on past promises to boost aid. Rich countries, meanwhile, peppered the conference with promises of more aid and capacity building, arguing that they have made an impact already. France, for instance, said it would give a “sharp increase” in aid for capacity building.
Numerous developing country speakers insisted that the outcome must truly benefit developing and least-developed countries. Several have targeted developed country subsidies on cotton and other agriculture products as seriously distorting trade. A number questioned whether they have gained the expected benefits from joining the WTO, but all restated their commitment to the organisation.
The representative from Lesotho told the plenary session, “There is hardly any policy space left” because of the extreme difficulties in least developed countries who are falling so far behind.
Developed countries, the WTO, and the International Trade Centre have promoted “aid for trade” programmes, including the Enhanced Integrated Framework initiative for capacity building in least developed countries more accessions of developing countries, and the benefits of opening markets.
The Czech Republic in its plenary statement said a strategy is needed to think about how the trading system will look in the future, and it needs to be fitted to “new times, new trade-related areas of economy.” The WTO will need to change, the Czech speaker said, including in governance.
Ministers also signaled that the evergrowing number of bilateral and regional trade agreements “is an issue.”
Non-governmental groups inside the meeting hall at the end formed a large circle and sang songs bidding what they hoped was a final farewell to the Doha Round, which they blame for numerous economic woes and imbalances in poor countries.
But in the closing plenary and press conferences, there was little sign of a taste for change within the WTO or the trading system.
William New may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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