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Facing deadlock, WTO negotiations grind on despite Indian defiance

GENEVA — The World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations on food, fisheries, and vaccines stretched into the early hours on Thursday amid growing doubts that tough bargaining could deliver deals in the face of Indian intransigence. 

During the WTO’s ministerial conference this week, its first major meeting in over four years, the 164-member body is seeking to agree a response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a reduction of fishing subsidies, food security pledges and the launch of internal reform in a package of deals badly needed to prove the body’s relevance. 

“There’s not a single outcome yet,” said a source involved with the talks that are ongoing in the “Green Room” of the WTO’s Geneva headquarters. Pakistan Commerce Minister Syed Naveed Qamar earlier told Reuters he thought the WTO was heading towards a “no-result ministerial.” 

A WTO spokesperson was more upbeat, saying there had been significant progress and that it was not far from agreements. 

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the more than 100 ministers present that time was running out and that they should “go the extra mile.” The June 12–15 conference has already been extended by an extra day into Thursday. The US trade representative Katherine Tai leaves in the morning, a US official confirmed, adding pressure to strike deals in the coming hours. 

The WTO takes decisions by consensus, so just one objection can sink a deal. 

Delegates said India, which has a history of blocking multilateral trade deals, appeared far from ready to compromise. That view was supported by comments Indian Commerce Minister Shri Piyush Goyal made in closed sessions and which New Delhi chose to publish. 

India and South Africa and other developing countries have sought a waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for over a year, but faced opposition from several developed nations with major pharmaceutical producers. 

A provisional deal between major parties — India, South Africa, the United States and the European Union — emerged in May, but drew criticism from campaign groups that it fell short of what is needed. 

Activists staged a “die-in” protest at the WTO building on Wednesday, coughing and pretending to drop dead to the floor to highlight the deaths they say are caused by the absence of a broad intellectual property waiver. 

Mr. Goyal echoed that view. 

“My own sense is that what we are getting is completely half baked and it will not allow us to make any vaccines,” he said. 

The WTO has also pushed hard for a global deal to cut fishing subsidies, which would be only the second multilateral agreement since its creation 27 years ago and a demonstration of its relevance in an era of growing trade tensions. 

Mr. Goyal, in comments to delegates, said India was a strong advocate of sustainability, but its fishing industry did not operate huge fleets and relied on small-scale and often poor fishers. 

The minister said India and similar countries should be granted a 25-year transition period to phase out fishing subsidies, far longer than what most other WTO members have suggested. 

“It’s not yet clear though that there is a deal to be had…. with the Indians throwing in even more objections to texts,” one diplomat close to the talks said. 

However, civil society groups said it was rich nations, with inflexibility towards the needs of the developing world, that were responsible for the impasse. — Philip Blenkinsop and Emma Farge/Reuters