World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala stressed the need to prioritize action on COVID-19 and focus on completing fisheries subsidies negotiations. She cautioned against “loading too many expectations” into the WTO’s twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12), to ensure “a recipe for success not failure.”

Addressing the WTO General Council on 1 March 2021, immediately after taking office as the Organization’s seventh Director-General, Okonjo-Iweala cited “an increasing loss of confidence” in the WTO’s ability to deliver results. “It cannot be business as usual,” she said, calling on members to “do things differently.” 

Okonjo-Iweala urged members to finalize “three or four clear deliverables” before MC12, and prepare work programmes for the rest, to be agreed at MC12. Among priority actions, she highlighted:

  • curb harmful fisheries subsidies;
  • help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution;
  • agree the roadmap and prepare a work programme for reform of the WTO’s dispute settlement system;
  • identify deliverables on agriculture, such as public stockholding, a special safeguard mechanism, cotton, and the proposed World Food Programme (WFP) humanitarian waiver;
  • put forward a subsidies work programme both on domestic support and industrial subsidies; and
  • “sharpen our approach” to special and differential treatment.

She suggested members review the work on e-commerce, investment facilitation, services domestic regulation, micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), women in trade, and trade and climate to identify the aspects that can be advanced at MC12.

On COVID-19, Okonjo-Iweala urged members to focus on the immediate needs of poor countries while discussions on a proposed waiver for several aspects of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) are ongoing. She encouraged members to work with companies to open and license more vaccine manufacturing sites in emerging markets and developing countries, and promote know-how and technology transfer.

Okonjo-Iweala indicated she will meet with members individually and in groups to “listen, brainstorm, [and] map out” the way forward on the deliverables she identified.

The General Council convened from 1-2 March and on 4 March to discuss a full agenda of items relating to the conclusion of fisheries subsidies negotiations, the proposed TRIPS waiver and other COVID-19-related issues, and the legal status of the joint statement initiatives (JSIs) and their negotiated outcomes, among others. Members agreed that MC12 will take place in the week of 29 November 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. MC12 was originally scheduled to take place from 8-11 June 2020, in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, but was postponed due to COVID-19. [WTO Director-General’s Speech] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on Okonjo-Iweala’s Selection to Lead WTO]