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Omicron Variant Claims First Global Event as WTO Cancels Geneva Conference for the Second Time

By: Aman Sharma

News18.com

Last Updated: November 27, 2021, 11:06 IST

Concrete blocks and barriers are installed to protect access to the World Trade Organization headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland on November 25, 2021. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Concrete blocks and barriers are installed to protect access to the World Trade Organization headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland on November 25, 2021. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

All eyes at the 12th Ministerial Conference were to be on India, which seeks to address a raft of issues such as differential treatment to developing countries, patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and public procurement for food security.

In the first international event casualty of the new coronavirus variant Omicron, the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva has been postponed indefinitely.

The MC12 was due to start on November 30 and continue until December 3. “But the announcement of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in Switzerland and many other European countries led General Council Chair Amb. Dacio Castillo (Honduras) to call an emergency meeting of all WTO members to inform them of the situation. Given these unfortunate developments and the uncertainty that they cause, we see no alternative but to propose to postpone the Ministerial Conference and reconvene it as soon as possible when conditions allow,” Castillo told the General Council, as per a WTO statement.

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This marks the second time that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced a postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference. The meeting was originally due to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

“Further to the urgent Informal General Council meeting this evening, November 26, 2021, we would like to confirm that given the serious epidemiological situation, holding MC12 as previously agreed will regrettably no longer be feasible. We will reconvene it as soon as conditions allow,” the WTO has informed heads of all delegations.

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As per a CNBC TV18 report, all eyes at the MC12 were to be on India, which seeks to address a raft of critical issues such as special and differential treatment to developing countries, patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and public procurement for food security.

One of the priority areas that India was expected to fight for at MC12 was the temporary waiver on WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to get equitable access to vaccines. The ministerial conference is WTO’s highest decision-making body which sets the rules of trade across the globe. The meeting was to be attended by trade ministers and senior officials from 164 member countries, and is held once in two years.

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A WTO statement quoted Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as saying that the Omicron travel bans meant that many ministers and senior delegates could not have participated in face-to-face negotiations at the conference. This would render participation on an equal basis impossible, she said.

“Many delegations have long maintained that meeting virtually does not offer the kind of interaction necessary for holding complex negotiations on politically sensitive issues. This has not been an easy recommendation to make… But as Director-General, my priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants – ministers, delegates and civil society. It is better to err on the side of caution,” she said, noting that the postponement would continue to keep the WTO in line with Swiss regulations.

The Director-General and Dacio Castillo urged delegations to maintain the negotiating momentum that had been established in recent weeks. “This does not mean that negotiations should stop. On the contrary, delegations in Geneva should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with,” the D-G said as per a WTO statement.

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first published:November 27, 2021, 10:55 IST
last updated:November 27, 2021, 11:06 IST