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WTO fisheries talks: Members try to untangle special, differential treatment

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on February 19, 2021

New WTO DG wants fisheries pact to be finalised by next Ministerial Conference

World Trade Organisation’s next Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has prioritised the proposed agreement on pruning harmful fisheries subsidies, which is stuck over extending special and differential treatment to developing countries like India, and has said that the pact should be finalised by the next Ministerial Conference (MC12) likely this year.

“The second cluster of fisheries subsidies meetings has taken place this week and members held bilateral and small group discussions. There were separate talks on special and differential treatment for developing countries but differences remain,” a Geneva-based official told BusinessLine.

An agreement on prohibiting ‘harmful’ fisheries subsidies could lead to elimination of an estimated at $14 billion-$20.5 billion of subsidies annually that lead to overfishing and depletion of fish stocks worldwide, but many countries like India have sought exemption for artisanal fishers who fish in territorial waters.

Some WTO members, however, are of the view that instead of giving an exemption, developing countries should be allowed a transitional period before rules on prohibited subsidies get implemented.

“Some options that were examined included giving more time to some developing and least-developed countries to expand their fleets by giving subsidies. It was also suggested that alternatively, the transition period could be used to increase countries’ ability to monitor their fish stocks which can then enable them to use the proposed carve-outs to allow subsidised fishing in well managed waters,” the official said.

No agreement could be reached between WTO members on the criteria for selecting countries that would be eligible for special treatment including transition periods. India continued to insist that there should be blanket exemption from subsidy reduction commitments for fishing in territorial waters as this was where most of the small and artisanal fishers cast their nets.

Some other members opposed the proposal on the ground that it would result in horizontal fuel subsidies provided to all industries go unchecked. They suggested that instead, fuel subsidies and fuel tax exemptions should be banned.

“I am acutely aware that the negotiations on fishery subsidies are difficult, but members should exercise the necessary flexibility for progress to be made on this important issue. A robust agreement would be a win-win for trade and sustainability,” said Okonjo-Iweala at the WTO General Council meeting earlier this week. The new DG will officially take charge from March 1 2021.

Published on February 19, 2021

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