The World Trade Organization will host a ministerial meeting this week aimed at igniting long-term negotiations to ban subsidies that promote overfishing, but many sticking points remain.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala expressed hope that trade ministers from the organization’s 164 member states could finally move forward towards a “historic” deal.
“The health of our oceans and our planet is at stake,” she warned in a video address last week. “We just can’t afford to miss this opportunity. “
The talks aim to ban subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, as well as overfishing, threatening the sustainability of the industry.
While fishing should in theory be controlled by the environment, with low fish stocks driving up costs, subsidies can keep fleets unprofitable at sea.
Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at between $ 14 billion and $ 54 billion per year, according to the WTO.
It is widely recognized that action is needed to protect a crucial resource on which millions of people depend for their livelihoods.
But 20 years of negotiations failed to reach a deal, with unresolved disagreements on a range of issues, including a UN demand that developing countries and poorer nations be given special treatment.
After missing the last UN deadline to reach an agreement by December 2020, however, talks have intensified in recent months.
– ‘History’ –
Okonjo-Iweala, who took the helm of the world trade body in March, has made securing the long-awaited fisheries deal by the end of this year a priority.
Thursday’s meeting, which will be closed to media, will see trade ministers discuss a draft text presented in May by Colombian Ambassador Santiago Wills.
# photo1Okonjo-Iweala expressed optimism for the success of the text, which Wills says offers “language of compromise” in various areas.
“After two decades of negotiations at the World Trade Organization and marathon discussions this year, we have before us a draft agreement text that will put into action the global ambition to end harmful subsidies in fisheries”, she declared.
“We are on the verge of concluding an agreement at the WTO which is historic in more ways than one,” she said, noting that an agreement would also show that “members can come together and act on issues. issues of global concern ”.
It can be difficult to reach any agreement in the WTO, as all decisions require consensus among all member states.
– Special treatment? –
“I sincerely hope that everyone will approach this revised text with a view to finding a possible compromise for a successful conclusion of the negotiations,” Wills said last week.
But a number of sticking points remain and NGOs warn against rushing to the finish line at all costs.
# photo2 “It is essential that WTO members do not sacrifice environmental performance to speed up the negotiation of a fisheries subsidy deal,” Isabel Jarrett of The Pew Charitable Trusts told AFP.
One of the main stumbling blocks has been the UN’s demand that developing countries and poorer nations receive what is called special and differential treatment, or SDT.
While special treatment for the poorest countries is widely accepted, the demands of some self-identified developing countries to be exempt from the constraints of subsidies have proven difficult to swallow.
Many of the major fishing countries are considered developing countries by the WTO, including China, which has one of the largest fishing fleets in the world.
An EU official told reporters this week that a statement by China that it was ready to make “full commitments without calling for the SDT” would be “very helpful” to the talks.
There is also disagreement over the scope of the fisheries agreement.
There seems to be a consensus around excluding fish farming and inland fishing from subsidy constraints.
But some developing countries are calling for fuel subsidies, including through tax deduction programs like those widely used in the EU, to be included in the deal – something the bloc categorically rejects.
The text is also unlikely to satisfy countries like the United States, whose calls to include a ban on forced labor on fishing vessels have gone unheeded.
© 2021 AFP