The Ministerial Conference, the WTO’s highest decision-making entity, convenes typically every two years. It puts together all of the WTO’s members, which are either nations or customs unions. All decisions pertaining to any of the multilateral trade agreements must be made by the Ministerial Conference.

The first Ministerial Conference (i.e. MC1) was held in Singapore in 1996 and the last one (MC11) was organised in Buenos Aires in 2017. All these MCs have evolved prevailing current global trading system.

Singapore, 9-13 December 1996 (MC1)

  • Trade, foreign, finance and agriculture Ministers from more than 120 World Trade Organization Member governments and from those in the process of acceding to the WTO participated.
  • The following four issues termed as the Singapore issues were first brought up on which the multilateral body could initiate negotiations:
    • trade and investment
    • trade facilitation
    • transparency in government procurement
    • trade and competition

Geneva, Switzerland 18-20 May 1998 (MC2)

  • The Ministerial Declaration included following work programmes:
    • the issues, including those brought forward by Members, relating to implementation of existing agreements and decisions,
    • the future work already provided for under other existing agreements and decisions taken at Marrakesh,
    • possible future work on the basis of the work programme initiated at Singapore,
    • Priority areas for the next round of comprehensive negotiations on agriculture include Market access, Export subsidies etc.

Seattle, USA November 30 – December 3, 1999 (MC3)

  • There were two major issues,
    • first, whether to start a new comprehensive round of negotiations such as the Uruguay Round or confine negotiations to the so-called “built in agenda” of agriculture and services mandated at the last Ministerial.
    • Secondly, what should the negotiations encompass, more specifically what should be included in the agenda of the meeting.
  • The meeting was unable to resolve both issues, and ended in stalemate.
  • The deliberations were suspended without agreement on a new round of negotiations and without agreement on a ministerial declaration.

Doha, Qatar 9-13 November 2001 (MC4)

  • Agriculture: The special and differential treatment for developing countries shall be an integral part of all elements of the negotiations to enable developing countries to effectively take account of their development needs, including food security and rural development.
  • Services: The negotiations on trade in services shall be conducted with a view to promoting the economic growth of all trading partners and the development of developing and least-developed countries.
    • It recognizes the work already undertaken in the negotiations, initiated in January 2000 under Article XIX of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and the large number of proposals submitted by members on a wide range of sectors and several horizontal issues, as well as on movement of natural persons.
  • Market access for non-agricultural products:
    • The negotiations shall take fully into account the special needs and interests of developing and least-developed country participants, including through less than full reciprocity in reduction commitments, in accordance with the relevant provisions of Article XXVIII bis of GATT 1994.
  • Transparency in government procurement:
    • Recognizing the case for a multilateral agreement on transparency in government procurement and the need for enhanced technical assistance and capacity building in this area, it agreed that negotiations would take place on the basis of a decision to be taken, by explicit consensus.

Cancún, Mexico 10-14 September 2003 (MC5)

  • The main task was to take stock of progress in negotiations and other work under the Doha Development Agenda.

Hong Kong, 13-18 December 2005 (MC6)

  • The WTO member economies aimed to reach a preliminary agreement on liberalization of farm trade by reducing subsidies, and address other issues at meeting, aiming for a successful conclusion of the Doha Round in 2006.
  • After an intense talk, WTO Members have produced an interim package for the Doha Round negotiation:
    • the deadlines for the elimination of agricultural export subsidies (2013) and cotton export subsidies (2006),
    • and also mandates that duty and quota-free access for at least 97% of products originating from the least developed countries (LDCs) be provided by 2008.
    • Regarding non-agricultural market access (NAMA), Members adopted the “Swiss formula” mandating greater cuts in higher tariffs, and decided that modalities for tariff reduction be established by April 30, 2006.
      • The Swiss Formula (by the Swiss Delegation to the WTO) is a suggested method for reducing tariff on non-agricultural goods (NAMA) by both developed and developing countries.
      • It makes different coefficients for developed and developing countries.
      • Here, tariff-cuts are supposed to be undertaken such that it cuts higher tariffs more steeply than it cuts lower tariffs.
  • This meeting could have been the final step of the Doha trade talks launched in 2001.

Geneva, Switzerland 30 November – 2 December 2009 (MC7)

  • The theme of the Conference is “The WTO, the Multilateral Trading System and the Current Global Economic Environment”.
  • Unlike previous Conferences, this meeting was not a Doha Round negotiating session, but rather a chance for Ministers to reflect on all elements of WTO’s work, exchange ideas and extend guidance on the best way forward in the years to come.

Geneva, Switzerland 15-17 December 2011 (MC8)

  • The Conference approved the accessions of the Russian Federation, Samoa and Montenegro.
  • It adopted a number of decisions on intellectual property, electronic commerce, small economies, least developed countries’ accession, a services waiver for least developed countries, and trade policy reviews.
  • It reaffirmed the integrality of special and differential treatment provisions to the WTO agreements and their determination to fulfil the Doha mandate to review them with a view to strengthening them and making them more precise, effective and operational.

Bali, Indonesia 3-6 December 2013 (MC9)

  • The Conference adopted the “Bali Package”, a series of decisions aimed at:
    • streamlining trade,
    • allowing developing countries more options for providing food security,
    • boosting least-developed countries’ trade and helping development more generally.
  • The Bali Package is a selection of issues from the broader Doha Round negotiations.
  • The Conference also approved accession of Yemen as a new member of the WTO.

Nairobi, Kenya 15-19 December 2015 (MC10)

  • It culminated in the adoption of the “Nairobi Package”, a series of decisions on agriculture, cotton and issues related to least-developed countries (LDCs).
    • Agriculture:
      • Special Safeguard Mechanism for Developing Country Members,
      • Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes,
      • Export Competition,
    • Cotton: Stressing the vital importance of cotton to a number of developing economies and particularly the least-developed amongst them,
      • Developed country Members, and developing country Members declaring themselves in a position to do so, shall grant preferential trade arrangements in favour of LDCs, as from 1 January 2016, duty-free and quota-free market access for cotton produced and exported by LDCs.
    • LDC issues:
      • Preferential Rules of Origin for Least Developed Countries,
      • Implementation of Preferential Treatment in Favour of Services and Service Suppliers of Least Developed Countries,
      • and Increasing LDC Participation in Services Trade,
  • The decision in Nairobi builds on the 2013 Bali Ministerial Decision on preferential rules of origin for LDCs.
  • The “Nairobi Package” pays fitting tribute to the Conference host, Kenya, by delivering commitments that will benefit in particular the organization’s poorest members.

Buenos Aires, Argentina 10-13 December 2017 (MC11)

  • The Conference ended with a number of ministerial decisions, including on fisheries subsidies and e-commerce duties, and a commitment to continue negotiations in all areas.

Geneva, Switzerland 12-17 June 2022 (MC12)

  • Kazakhstan was originally scheduled to host MC12 in June 2020 but the conference was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The key areas of discussions were WTO’response to the pandemic, Fisheries subsidies negotiations, Agriculture issues including Public Stockholding for Food securityWTO Reforms and Moratorium on Custom Duties on Electronic Transmission.

Key Outcomes of the 12th Ministerial Conference?

  • WTO Reform:
    • Members reaffirmed the foundational principles of the WTO and committed to an open and inclusive process to reform all its functions, from deliberation to negotiation to monitoring.
    • Notably, they committed to work towards having a well-functioning dispute settlement system accessible to all members by 2024.
  • Agreement on Curtailing Harmful Fishing Subsidies:
    • It would curb ‘harmful’ subsidies on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing for the next four years, to better protect global fish stocks.
    • Since 2001, member states have been negotiating the banning of subsidies that promote overfishing.
    • India and other developing countries were able to win some concessions in this agreement. They successfully lobbied to remove a section of the proposal that would threaten some subsidies which would assist small-scale artisanal fishing Artisanal and traditional farmers would not face any restrictions under this agreement.
  • Agreement on Global Food Security:
    • Members agreed to a binding decision to exempt food purchased by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) for humanitarian purposes, from any export restrictions.
    • In light of the global food shortages and rising prices caused by the war between Ukraine and Russia, the group’s members issued a declaration on the importance of trade in global food security and that they would avoid bans on food exports.
    • However, countries would be allowed to restrict food supplies to ensure domestic food security needs.
  • Agreement on E-commerce Transactions:
    • From 2017-2020, developing countries lost a potential tariff revenue of around USD 50 billion on imports from only 49 digital products.
    • WTO members had first agreed to not impose custom duties on electronic transmissions in 1998, when the internet was still relatively new. The moratorium has been periodically extended since then.
    • However, all members agreed to continue the long standing moratorium on custom duties on e-commerce transmissions until the subsequent Ministerial Conference or until 31st March 2024, depending on whichever comes first.
  • Agreement on ‘Covid-19’ Vaccine Production:
    • WTO members agreed to temporarily waive intellectual property patents on Covid-19 vaccines without the consent of the patent holder for 5 years, so that they can more easily manufacture them domestically.
    • This “will contribute to ongoing efforts to concentrate and diversify vaccine manufacturing capacity so that a crisis in one region does not leave others cut off.”
    • The current agreement is a watered down version of the original proposal made by India and South Africa in 2020. They had wanted broader intellectual property waivers on vaccines, treatments and tests.
    • Rich pharmaceutical companies had strongly opposed this, arguing that IP’s do not restrict access to Covid vaccines and that the removal of patent protections gives researchers that quickly produced life saving vaccines, a negative message.
    • The waiver agreed by the WTO was criticized by advocacy groups for being narrow in scope, as it did not cover all medical tools like diagnostics and treatments. “This agreement fails overall to offer an effective and meaningful solution to help increase people’s access to needed medical tools during the pandemic as it does not adequately waive IP on all essential Covid-19 medical tools and it does not apply to all countries.
What are the Issues Raised by India in 12th Ministerial Conference?
  • On WTO Reforms:
    • India believes that WTO reforms discussions must focus on strengthening its fundamental principles.
    • At this time, reserving Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT), which includes consensus-based decision making, non-discrimination, and special and differential treatment, should not result in the preservation of inherited disparities or aggravate the imbalances.
    • India takes the initiative to suggest reforms for developing countries (Developing countries reform paper “Strengthening the WTO to Promote Development and Inclusion”).
    • India offered a proposal in which it took the lead in criticizing the European Union and Brazil’s suggestions, both on the process and its goals. It was against an open-ended exercise on WTO amendments.
  • E-commerce Transactions:
    • India had asked the WTO to review the extension of the moratorium on custom duties on e-commerce transactions, which include digitally-traded goods and services.
    • It argued that developing countries faced the brunt of the financial consequences of such a moratorium.
  • On Food Security:
    • WTO should renegotiate subsidy rules for government-backed food purchasing programs aimed at feeding poor citizens in developing and poor countries.
    • India wants assurances that its public stock-holding program, which buys exclusively from the nation’s farmers and has exported in the past, cannot be challenged at the WTO as illegal.

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