Will hear India’s concerns: WTO DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

World Trade Organisation (WTO) director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Friday said India’s concerns towards protecting its food security and getting a fair deal at the ongoing negotiations on elimination of fisheries subsidies deserves to be heard and will be heard.

She said she’s hopeful of a good outcome at the upcoming WTO ministerial conference but said she cannot guarantee an outcome on fisheries subsidy or on India’s demand for a permanent solution on food security.

Winding up her three-day visit to New Delhi, Okonjo-Iweala said India’s leadership is very important and its voice needs to be heard.

“Many people believe that voices of only developed countries are heard in the WTO and not that of developing nations, so I wanted to make sure that, it is not like that during my time and developing countries’ voices will also be heard,” she said.

The director general said she will ask WTO members to push the agriculture issues and denied that the various plurilateral negotiations had taken the centre stage at the multilateral trade body.

“I’m hopeful of a good outcome at MC12 (ministerial council meeting) and felt a lot of support from the Indian side,” she told reporters after her meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, external affairs minister S Jaishankar, and commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal.

She described her meeting with Modi as positive.

“I had a very good meeting with the PM. India is a leader with strong voice at the WTO. We spoke of strengthening the organisation and he said how the multilateral trading system should also work for developing countries,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

On the upcoming ministerial conference next month, she said: “Members should work hard to engage with India on this food security concern. Just like fisheries, I cannot guarantee the outcome. I will be asking members to push on agriculture, including a permanent solution. The good news for India is that there is an interim peace clause that benefits India. Even if you don’t get a permanent solution, it will continue to have the peace clause”.

As per the DG, one of the reasons why a permanent solution is actually important is because other developing countries are not part of the peace clause.

“They cannot develop their own food security programmes. If there is a permanent solution, they can do that. We will push as much as we can,” she said, emphasising thy she doesn’t know what deliverables will be there but “there is a spirit of support on fisheries.”

The WTO aims to finalise disciplines to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, in the ministerial conference in December.

On fisheries subsidies agreement negotiations, she said the members have given the proposal “a go” and the countries have to negotiate that amongst themselves, but added that it does not mean that “I am guaranteeing that we will get it, but the spirit to go for it, gives you quite a bit of hope”.

While developed nations are pushing for prohibitions on fisheries subsidies, India wants an equitable and balanced outcome as the country provides support to its small and marginal fisherfolk.

“India deserves to be heard. India will be heard,” she said.

As per sources, an outcome in the ministerial could be from the services’ domestic regulation, fisheries, trade and health, women or agriculture and a “pragmatic solution” to the intellectual property rights issue to tackle the pandemic.

On being asked if the Joint Statement Initiatives (JSI) have taken over the entire narrative of the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala said no, and insisted that multilateral issues have not taken a back seat. “Absolutely not. Have you heard me talking about JSIs? What you heard me talking about is the multilateral negotiations. That is why we must succeed with multilaterals. We must push hard to get multilateral negotiations completed.”

She said there are differences of opinion between the members on JSIs as some like India do not believe in their legality and others who believe that JSIs are part of instruments want to use them to tackle emerging issues.

“If we want the multilateral instrument to be taken seriously, then we must allow a multilateral negotiation to succeed,” she emphasised.

On her discussions with Goyal in the last two days, the WTO DG said they were constructive but “not easy”.

“I believe in a balanced approach,” she said, adding that efforts are on to reduce export restrictions and improve the supply chains amid the ongoing pandemic.

( Originally published on Oct 22, 2021 )

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