Covid-19 impact: Poor nations back India’s call to defer WTO talks

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on May 13, 2020

Lawlessness in trade is now pervasive

‘Formal decisions cannot be taken at virtual meetings’

India has taken a formal stand at the World Trade Organisation in favour of postponing all negotiations, including the talks on curbing fisheries subsidies, till the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. This has found support from many developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), an official has said.

New Delhi has argued that while several poorer countries did not have the resources to participate in digital meetings during the crisis, there are others facing livelihood challenges who may change their negotiating positions that would get reflected only when the crisis has run its course.

“India got the support from almost all developing countries, including the African Group and the ACP and the LDCs following its proposal at the informal virtual meeting of the Heads of Delegation that the negotiations need to be suspended. No negotiations are now being held virtually. Some members may raise the issue again at the virtual General Council meeting on May 15, but we are prepared with our arguments,” an official told BusinessLine.

Following the Heads of Delegation meeting, the WTO is now looking at a year-end deadline for completion of the negotiations on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies that was supposed to be concluded at the meeting of WTO Trade Minister’s in June 2020. The WTO Ministerial meet has also been deferred because of the on-going pandemic.

India said that it can agree to the conduct of informal meetings and exchange of views without formal decision-making, through virtual means, so that it remains engaged on important issues. “However, let us be very clear that informal virtual meetings cannot translate into discussions on substantive negotiating issues that have implications on members’ policy,” according to India’s statement at the meeting.

The country is also open to considering regular committees seeking online written submissions, but only on non-negotiating agenda items. The timelines for submitting written responses need to be pragmatic and flexible, it added.

It is not feasible to conduct negotiations on substantive issues through virtual meetings or written procedures as the lockdowns and social distancing norms imposed across most capitals make it challenging to receive substantive inputs from all relevant stakeholders, the statement noted. Also with WTO negotiations low on priority for many countries battling the current crisis, the ability to negotiate is further constrained.

Since the economic hardship and threat to food and livelihood security due to the Covid-19 pandemic may lead several WTO members to re-assess their negotiating positions across different areas of the WTO’s work, to carry on with negotiations in a business as usual format does not make sense, it said.

Published on May 13, 2020

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