WTO Fisheries subsidies process changes to disadvantage developing countries


The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is altering the process for negotiations to curb fisheries subsidies in a manner that will make it harder for developing countries, including Pacific member states to engage in the talks.

PACNEWS has confirmed that Chair of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, Santiago Wills, has communicated to Member States’ Heads of Delegation on a specific and new process for negotiations going forward.

The process, due to COVID19 restrictions, limits in person attendance of negotiations to Heads of Delegations-plus-one only while virtual participation is limited to “listen only” mode. Previously Member states who participated virtually were able to speak and make proposals however it appears that this option is now no longer available in the fisheries subsidies negotiations despite it still being the case in other negotiations underway at the WTO.

The COVID19 restrictions on travel are further complicating the ability for some developing country members to participate in the negotiations. The changes as outlined by the Chair will mean that those Members States who don’t have Geneva based missions and aren’t able to travel due to closed borders will be unable to intervene in the negotiations.

With many simultaneous negotiations currently underway in the WTO it presents a logistical challenge for many developing countries with small missions in Geneva. The removal of virtual participation into the fisheries talks precludes officials based back in capitals from being able to intervene.

The WTO’s Director General, Dr, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has claimed that “concluding these negotiations is a top priority for this organisation, not only for the fisheries, but also for the WTO system”. The negotiations on fisheries subsidies are also part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which sets as a target the elimination of subsidies for Illegal Unreported and Unregulated fishing, prohibit in certain forms that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity whilst ensuring appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries.

There are concerns that the recent changes to the negotiating process will disadvantage developing countries, including the Pacific.

The Pacific Network on Globalisation’s (PANG) campaigner, Adam Wolfenden when questioned by PACNEWS said, “these changes will hamper the involvement of those developing and least-developed countries with limited staff and resources in Geneva as well as effectively cut off the support from technical expertise back in capitals. This is an attempt to manufacture a biased outcome by making it harder for those same countries who have the least historical responsibility for the state of global fish stocks to advocate for a pro-development and sustainability outcome”.

The changes in negotiating process comes after the 15 July Ministerial which was hailed as a success by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who stated in her concluding remarks that “[o]ne fundamental conclusion that I draw from your interventions today is that Members are ready to use the text as the basis for future negotiations”.

This interpretation of the 15 July Ministerial comes despite many developing countries including the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group, Least Developed Country Group, African group, India, Indonesia and South Africa expressing their concerns about the text of the agreement.

At the Ministerial Fiji’s Trade Minister Faiyaz Koya stated, “Fiji believes that the revised text does not have all the ingredients to conclude the Agreement. Fiji is not satisfied with the current chair’s text….the text is imbalance[d] against our development and small-scale fishers. It will permanently prevent us sustainably developing our own resources, by rewarding the existing distant water fishing fleets that have grown on the back of billions of dollars of subsidies”.

What’s more the fisheries subsidies negotiations remain deeply divided on a number of critical issues, namely the permanent flexibilities being granted to large industrial fishers compared to the time and geographically bound flexibilities in the form of special and differential treatment proposed for developing countries.

Susan Herawati, Secretary General of Koalisi Rakyat untuk Keadilan Perikanan or the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice Indonesia commented “the WTO will fulfil its mandate of ensuring fish stock and livelihoods for small fishers globally only if high subsidies for large-scale fishers in rich countries are disciplined and actual small fishers are allowed to be subsidised. But as the process is deteriorating we are concerned a fair outcome is unlikely and the negotiations should be stopped if the process goes on in this manner”.

In April this year, shortly after starting her role as Director General, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala addressed the fisheries subsidies negotiations stating “I wanted to assure everybody that the principles of transparency and inclusiveness will be respected, and that no decisions will be taken behind closed doors”.

Despite these sentiments not everyone is convinced. Speaking on behalf of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), representing over 10 million fisherfolk in 23 countries around the world, Naseegh Jaffer, said “we are already extremely worried that the outcome will destroy small fishers’ livelihoods in poor countries. Making the process of negotiations so restricted and opaque at such a critical time makes us doubly convinced that the outcome will be in favour of rich fishers in advanced countries and totally against our interests”.

Meanwhile, negotiations and fish talks continue this week at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.