Ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization on November 30, civil society leaders from around the world are declaring a WTO effort, supported by Canada, to issue a declaration on trade and health to be a harmful distraction from inaction on a waiver of WTO-protected intellectual property barriers that are prolonging the pandemic. The vast majority of WTO member nations agree we need to prioritize waiving some WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules covering COVID-related vaccines, treatments, therapeutics and medical devices.
Despite many WTO members’ objections on process and substance, Ambassador David Walker from New Zealand is pushing negotiations supported by Canada, the few TRIPS waiver blockers, and a handful of other countries for a declaration listing more trade “liberalization” and new regulatory constraints as the WTO’s response to COVID-19. The CCPA joins international civil society groups in calling out this “Walker Process” sham and pledges to escalate efforts to secure a waiver of WTO IP barriers, which would address real barriers to scaling-up production and supply of vaccines, treatments and tests.
For more on the TRIPS waiver proposal at the WTO, see the devoted CCPA webpage here.
For more on the "Walker Process" and Canada's involvement, see TIRP Director Stuart Trew's recent article here.
For a web version of the following letter, see the Our World Is Not For Sale (OWINFS) network site here.
19 November 2021
Dear Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and all WTO Members,
We are writing with great urgency regarding the abrogation of process leading up to the 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO (MC12), and to reinforce that the absence of a meaningful outcome on TRIPS Waiver means that the WTO has failed to mount the required response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that continues to devastate countries socially and economically.
Intellectual property rules — enforced by the WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement — are key barriers to containing the COVID-19 pandemic. They confer monopolies, hinder the freedom to operate, and the scaling up of production, directly contributing to inequitable access around the world but especially in developing and least developed countries.
The TRIPS Waiver proposal (IP/C/W/669/Rev.1) was submitted in October 2020 and since has been supported by the majority of WTO Members, international organizations (e.g. the WHO, UNAIDS, UNITAID, UNCTAD), world leaders, faith leaders, civil society, parliamentarians and trade unions. This proposal which calls for a waiver from certain provisions of the WTO-TRIPS Agreement (with respect to patents, protection of undisclosed information, copyright and industrial designs) is globally viewed as being central to any effective WTO response to COVID-19 and to achieving equitable access.
Despite the significance of the TRIPS Waiver proposal, and after more than one year of intense discussion there does not seem to be much progress towards a meaningful outcome. Instead, scandalously the General Council Chair Dacio Castillo unilaterally selected Ambassador Walker of New Zealand to chair discussions on a declaration titled “WTO response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. Ambassador Walker also unilaterally tabled a proposed text which is clearly not designed to resolve the pandemic. Rather, the draft text promotes the same liberalization demands made by developed countries in various fora and interventions that will further constrain regulatory space and policy tools available to WTO Members, while further entrenching corporate influence in the institution, drastically undermining the Member-driven character of WTO as mandated in the Marrakesh Agreement.
Walker’s text also calls on WTO Members to establish a “Work Plan on Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience” that will carry the work post MC12 on the WTO response to the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially other future crises. However, the main intent of this work-plan appears to be to push the liberalization and deregulatory interests of developed countries and undermine existing mandates including the Doha mandate of 2001, which has multiple issues of interest to developing countries that were never delivered. Notably, the Walker process specifically excludes discussion on the most important topic: the TRIPS waiver.
The reality is that the Walker process is a deplorable attempt by the WTO to cover up what should be a grave humiliation: its inability to agree to remove key obstacles to resolving the COVID-19 pandemic by waiving intellectual property barriers as per the TRIPS waiver proposal. Millions of people have died because of the WTO’s vaccine apartheid and inequitable access.
The WTO’s response to the pandemic, thus, must be understood as attempting to ensure that the global pandemic not interfere with corporate desires to maintain profits even at the expense of lives and livelihoods globally. Instead, we call on governments and the WTO to ensure that trade rules do not hinder the global effort to end the pandemic and achieve global public health.
Another process we are concerned about is the push for establishing a new working group on WTO reform. Developing countries and many civil society campaigns have long called for reform of the multilateral trading system in favor of developing countries and large vulnerable constituencies such as small farmers, producers, workers, patient groups and indigenous peoples. However, it is clear from their propositions that developed countries are attempting to undermine the core fundamentals of the WTO's mandate as a multilateral institution and alter decision-making procedures. Instead, they wish to normalize the “Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs)” launched at the Buenos Aires Ministerial and henceforward, which will undermine the multilateral nature of the organization and its ability to deliver anything useful for developing countries and LDCs. They also attack developing country self- designation, a key legal principle of the WTO, thus eventually limiting the availability of special and differential treatment to many developing countries and LDCs. The reform narrative is also being utilized by some developed countries to inject into the WTO agenda issues that will further constrain the policy tools available to developing countries and open up more space for big business to influence the WTO agenda.
We are gravely concerned with the further marginalization of existing multilateral mandates for negotiations, such as the overdue Doha Development mandate, in particular to strengthen special and differential treatment flexibilities and make them more precise, effective and operational; deliver an expedited solution on cotton; and public stockholding for food security purposes, amongst other mandated issues. These attempts seem to seek to further entrench the WTO as a power-based rather than rules-based organization.
Different preparatory processes towards MC12 are being convened in a way that excludes the vast majority of WTO Members, while over-privileging the participation of developed country members. Exclusionary “Green Room” processes should be anathema to WTO Members and must be eliminated.
In addition, for the first time at a Ministerial Conference, the WTO Secretariat is drastically restricting the very minimal access that is allowed to civil society organizations (CSOs) and has even gone so far as to abolish the very tiny provision of facilities at the NGO center.
We urgently call on WTO Members to engage in a course correction: to agree immediately to the TRIPS waiver as proposed; to halt the sham Walker process’ on further liberalization and imposition of regulatory constraints and instead focus on real solutions; to focus WTO reform efforts on removing barriers to development; to halt all “Green Room” processes; to ensure full access to participation by all WTO Members to all negotiations; and to restore at least the very minimum levels of participation of civil society to the Ministerial Conference.