WTO: MC13 gets underway amid tense negotiating climate

D. Ravi Kanth

Amidst a tense negotiating climate, the fate of the World Trade Organization’s 13th ministerial conference (MC13), which commences on 26 February in Abu Dhabi, will be decided by three main issues among others, said people familiar with the development.

The three issues that could tilt the outcome at MC13 one way or the other are the permanent solution for public stockholding (PSH) programs for food security, the termination/extension of the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, and the controversial proposal to integrate the proposed plurilateral agreement on Investment Facilitation for Development (IFD) into the WTO rule book.

On 25 February, different coalitions held meetings including the G33 group of developing countries seeking the permanent solution for PSH and a special safeguard mechanism (SSM), the Cairns Group of farm-exporting countries, the Latin American Group led by Brazil and Ecuador seeking an ambitious work program on domestic support, and more importantly, the meeting of the members of the IFD initiative led by China, said people familiar with the discussions.

At the G33 meeting, a senior Indian commerce ministry official appears to have issued the strongest message yet that the mandated permanent solution on PSH must be concluded at MC13, said people familiar with the meeting.

The official warned that “it goes without saying that food security is national security. Besides, food security is considered a non-trade concern in the Agreement on Agriculture.”

The WTO’s Director-General, Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who appears to have been invited to attend the G33 meeting, seemingly abstained due to another engagement on digital trade and women organized by the Geneva- based International Trade Centre, said people familiar with the discussions.

It appears that the Nigerian trade minister also did not attend the G33 meeting raising suspicions whether he had been advised not to attend the meeting, said a G33 capital-based official, who asked not to be quoted.

At the same time, the DG’s presence at the IFD meeting appears to have raised serious questions as to why she chose to attend a meeting on a non-mandated issue, said a capital-based official, who asked not to be identified.

More importantly, the chair of MC13 attended the IFD meeting, which in normal circumstances would not have happened, said a member, who asked not to be quoted.

Trade ministers of the IFD initiative are expected to directly submit a proposal to the chair of MC13, Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, minister of state for foreign trade of the United Arab Emirates, for consideration at the open-ended meeting of trade ministers, a senior IFD official told the SUNS.

In all probability, the chair of MC13 will put it up for consideration, even though the issue has not been included in the agenda, said people familiar with the discussions.

In a related development, 126 countries, in the presence of the DG and the chair of MC13, seem to have gaveled the IFD agreement to be integrated into the Annex 4 schedule of the Marrakesh Agreement (dealing with the plurilateral agreements).

Now, the issue moves to MC13, first to decide on its admission into the agenda, which would require consensus, and then the final adoption following its admission into the agenda, said people familiar with the negotiations.


Meanwhile, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as a noted academic, called for stopping “the Illegitimate Anti-development Investment Facilitation Agreement Now!!”

In a press release issued on 25 February, representatives of non-governmental organizations including the Our World Is Not For Sale network, Transnational Institute, COSATU, as well as academic Prof. Jane Kelsey said the IFD agreement should only be decided by “consensus.”

“The convenors – South Korea and Chile, backed by China – have announced that plan, in the face of sustained objections from India and South Africa that these negotiations have no legitimacy,” the NGO representatives said.

According to the NGO representatives, “WTO Members have explicitly rejected attempts to get an investment agreement ever since 1996. A decision in 2004 said no discussion of investment negotiations in the WTO until the Doha round is over. It is not. In the 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference, WTO Members agreed that any such new issues will only be addressed if agreed by all Members.”

“Not only is there no mandate for these negotiations, there is a negative mandate. Countries who are trying to push this through at MC13 are breaching fundamental WTO rules”, said Deborah James, coordinator of the Our World is Not for Sale network.

She alleged that “we have heard hair-raising stories about pressure being brought at political levels in capital, often by-passing the trade officials who could analyze and provide informed advice on this”. Ms. James severely criticized the WTO DG for going far beyond her legitimate role “as an international public official,” who is legally required to be neutral.

In what New Zealand law professor Jane Kelsey condemned as “an appalling abuse of DG Ngozi’s position and mandate”, she said the DG attacked India and South Africa as depriving developing countries of the benefits of these agreements, when what they have been insisting on is that the WTO acts in accordance with its own rules.

“The long history of investment agreements shows this won’t address any of those issues. What countries really need is a commitment to actively facilitate investment to strategic sectors that countries need, and which is responsible and genuinely advances their development,” said Lucia Barcena from the Transnational Institute.

Finally, “we fear these dirty tactics will continue in the ministerial itself,” Ms James warned. “The IF agreement is not on the formal agenda, so how will they introduce it and block opposing Members from exposing the lack of consensus? Efforts to force it through will further undermine the WTO’s already shaky legitimacy,” she added.


The controversial “green room” meetings may stage a comeback at MC13, said a trade official familiar with the development.

Asked whether “green room” meetings are going to begin on 27 February, the WTO spokesperson, Mr Ismail Dieng, remained non-committal but provided a schedule of meetings.

Mr Dieng provided the following “choreography” of the negotiations:

* To set the context for the working sessions that will start on Tuesday, 27 February, an Informal Heads of Delegation meeting, chaired by the Director-General, will take place in the morning of 27 February.

* Working sessions on the draft Abu Dhabi Ministerial Outcome Document, Agriculture, Development, Dispute Settlement Reform, E-commerce Work Programme and Moratorium, and Fisheries Subsidies will take place from 27-29 February. This does not preclude the possibility of a session or sessions on other matters, as appropriate.

* Each Working Session will be followed by Convergence Building Sessions to address unresolved issues that would have emerged and been identified at the Working Session. Ministers will also meet in various configurations, as needed, to build convergence amongst themselves on specific issues.

* For transparency purposes, at the end of each day, the MC13 Chairperson and the Director-General will convene a Heads of Delegation meeting. This will be the occasion to hear reports from the Convergence Building Sessions, outreach efforts and discussions throughout the day. The HoDs will also assist Ministers in their preparations for the sessions the following day.

Given the opposition to the “green room” meetings during MC12 held in Geneva in June 2022, it remains to be seen whether the controversial practice will be repeated all over again. As reported in SUNS #9613 dated 12 July 2022, the WTO DG faced considerable criticism from many countries on being excluded from the “green room” meetings.

At a heads of delegation (HoD) meeting on 7 July 2022, the DG had “pushed back” against complaints from dozens of WTO members over the lack of transparency and inclusivity in finalizing the decisions/declarations reached at MC12 that concluded in Geneva on 17 June 2022, said people familiar with the development.

At the HoD meeting, the DG went on to defend the process she adopted at MC12, insisting that the doors were open for any country to attend meetings in Room D (at the WTO headquarters, which has a capacity for more than 60 members), in the WTO library (which could accommodate around 40 members) and “green room” meetings (up to 20 members), said people, who asked not to be quoted.

At one point in her concluding intervention, she said that the “green room” meetings were open to all members, a comment that provoked members to laugh in apparent disbelief, said people, who preferred not to be quoted.

Interestingly, the DG did not mention the fact that members needed an invitation/pass to participate in small group and “green room” meetings, said people, who asked not to be quoted.

It remains to be seen whether “green room” meetings will be held on the main issues at MC13, said people, who asked not to be quoted. +