Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has promised to make contributions to public health a priority once she becomes the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.
The World Bank executive is a special envoy for the World Health Organisation on COVID-19. She had also served as chair of the board of global vaccine alliance Gavi.
Okonjo-Iweala is set to receive unanimous backing on Monday [today] to become the first woman and first African director-general of the WTO, an intergovernmental organisation that is concerned with the regulation of international trade between nations.
The endorsement of the President Joe Biden administration had cleared the last obstacle to her appointment six months after a stalemate occasioned by ex-President Donald Trump’s refusal to endorse her candidacy.
Trump had also threatened to pull out of the organisation.
The WTO currently faces deadlock over an issue of waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs, with many wealthy countries opposed.
In addition to contributions to public health, news agency Reuters says, high on the to-do list will also be fisheries subsidies, the subject of the WTO’s main multilateral talks that missed a deadline to conclude by end-2020.
Both the WHO and WTO Secretariat had published a document on their joint collaboration on public health.
The document is titled, WTO Agreements & Public Health: A Joint Study by The WHO and the WTO Secretariat.
While the WTO Agreements explicitly allow governments to take measures to restrict trade in pursuing national health policy objectives, the emphasis in WTO rules is on how policies are pursued without questioning the underlying objective.
The joint study looks at the ways in which governments pursue specific health policies and which might have implications for trade.
According to the document obtained by PUNCH HealthWise, eight specific health matters are under review, namely, infectious disease control, food safety, tobacco, environment, and access to drugs.
Others are health services, food security and nutrition, and some emerging issues such as biotechnology.
Although the WTO Agreements do not deal directly with all these issues, national policy makers may need to take the Agreements into consideration when addressing them.
Concerning fisheries subsidies, the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) and SDG target 14.6 give negotiators the task of securing an agreement on eliminating subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by the end of 2020.
According to resources on its website, WTO members are negotiating rules to prohibit subsidies that threaten the sustainability of fishing to help to ensure the sustainable use and conservation of marine resources. As the only organization that can set and enforce global agreements to rein in distortive subsidies, the WTO has been entrusted by world leaders with the important task of fixing rules on fisheries subsidies.
The creation of fisheries subsidies disciplines has been the subject of work in the WTO’s Negotiating Group on Rules since the Doha Development Agenda was launched in 2001, with an elaboration of the negotiating mandate agreed in 2005. The adoption by world leaders in September 2015 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the negotiating mandate agreed at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC11) have given a renewed sense of urgency to the talks.
According to the latest data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, fish stocks are at risk of collapsing in many parts of the world due to overexploitation. It is estimated that 34% of global stocks are overfished compared with 10% in 1974, meaning they are being exploited at a pace where the fish population cannot replenish itself. Declining fish stocks threaten to worsen poverty and endanger coastal communities that rely on fishing. Roughly 39 million people depend on capture fisheries for their livelihood. Healthy seas are also important for food security, with fish providing 20% of animal protein needs on average for 3.3 billion people.
In theory, fishing should be held in check by its very environment: low fish stocks should mean fishing takes more time and costs more money. The problem, however, is that very often state funding keeps unprofitable fishing fleets at sea. Global fisheries subsidies are estimated to range from USD 14 billion to USD 54 billion per year.
Despite constraints, members have made much progress in the negotiations. Ambassadors in Geneva and capital-based officials are highly engaged in the negotiations. Members have been negotiating on the basis of a draft consolidated text first introduced in June 2020, with a revised version introduced in early November 2020.
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