Ratify fisheries subsidy agreement – director general of WTO to government

The agreement represents a historic achievement for the WTO, which has championed the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target to be met fully

The director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has called on the Government of Ghana to take steps, as a matter of urgency, to ratify the WTO’s new agreement on fisheries subsidy.

The WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies was adopted at the organisation’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) on 17 June 2022.

It marked an important step forward for ocean sustainability by prohibiting harmful fisheries subsidies, which are a critical factor in the depletion of global fish stocks.

The agreement represents a historic achievement for the membership of the WTO as the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target to be met fully; the first SDG target met through a multilateral agreement; the first WTO agreement to focus on the environment; the first broad, binding, multilateral agreement on ocean sustainability; and only the second agreement reached at the WTO since its inception on 1 January 1995.

For the agreement to become operational, two-thirds of the 164 members of the World Trade Organization have to deposit their instruments of acceptance with the WTO.

The plea

Addressing President Akufo-Addo at Jubilee House in Accra today (Tuesday 25 April 2023) when she led a delegation to pay a courtesy call on him, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the WTO has “succeeded after 21 years of deadlock to reach an agreement on the fisheries subsidy agreement”.

“We were able to agree on doing away with $22 billion in harmful subsidies that lead to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and we are actually negotiating a second phase of the agreement to deal with overfishing and overcapacity.

“But on the first phase, it is very important, because 12 million people in Africa depend on fisheries. And some of the things we found out are that Africa is losing $2.3 billion from IUU fishing [illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing] and $3 billion from overfishing and overcapacity – and those are, I will say, minimal estimates,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“So, we are losing a lot of money by other people coming and fishing in our waters, and there is nothing we can do to get away with it. This agreement will enable us to first get them to phase out all those subsidies. The fishing will not be economic without the subsidies that the countries are giving: that is the issue. Phasing them out will then make it economic,” she said.

Transparent about numbers

The WTO director said the second thing that the fisheries subsidy agreement will introduce when it comes into force is that it will require fisherfolk to “be transparent about their fisheries numbers and anyone who catches and reports this illegal and unreported fishing can bring them to the WTO tribunal” to seek justice.

“We need to stop illegal fishing and overfishing in our waters. We have managed to get this agreement, but for it to take hold, it has to be ratified by two-thirds of WTO’s members.

“We have 44 African countries. If we don’t get them to ratify, we will never get the two-thirds. So, I wanted to get Your Excellency’s [President Akufo-Addo’s] support.

“If we can get Ghana to ratify and the ECOWAS countries to do the same, it will be very helpful,” the WTO director general said.

Complete ratification

“We need 109 members to ratify. The good news is that the first to ratify was Switzerland and [everybody joked] that it is a landlocked country, so it has no fish to fry, so to say. But then Singapore ratified, and the first African country to ratify was the Seychelles.

“What shocked us was three weeks ago, when the US called me [to say] that they were trying to ratify. No one believed it because they have not been as rapid.

“Last week, I got a call, and she [Katherine Tai, the principal trade advisor, negotiator and spokeswoman on US trade policy, said: ‘Are you coming to the IMF meeting in Washington?’ I said, ‘But why?’ She said, ‘We think we would have finished with the process for the ratification.’ So, the US has ratified, and that sent shock waves,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“The EU [European Union] parliament has voted to ratify but it has to go to the European Council with the presidents, and they say it will be [considered on 1 June 2023]. So we will get all the 27 EU members on the 1 June [to ratify].

“I don’t want Africa to be behind because we are the biggest beneficiaries. The largest subsidisers are China ($6.8 billion), followed by the EU ($3.8 billion) and the US ($3.4 billion),” she also said.

Wave of digital trading

Turning her attention to digitalisation and prospects for digital trading, the WTO boss said she has taken notice of the systematic efforts Ghana is making in the area of digitalisation.

Digital trade is certainly going to be the next biggest thing in exchange of goods and services globally, Okonjo-Iweala said, and Ghana’s efforts in that regard must continue and grow.

“We see that digital trade is the wave of the future. Total global trade is about $31 trillion. Of that, goods trade [merchandise trade] is $25 trillion, services $7 trillion.

“Within that service, digital services trade is growing the fastest and it is about half of it – $4 trillion – and it is growing rapidly at 8% per annum compared to other types of trade,” she said.

“We are thinking that this is an area where our countries can benefit. When we look, Ghana seems to be doing well in providing some digitally traded services and professional services in business outsourcing. Investing in the digital economy is very good because that is going to be the wave of the future.”

Sharpen goods and services offer

President Akufo-Addo welcomed the call made by the WTO director general for Ghana to ratify the fisheries subsidy agreement.

He directed the Minister of Trade and Industry, K T Hammond, to liaise with the Ministries of Fisheries and of Agriculture to see how best Ghana can give consideration to the agreement for the purposes of ensuring it is ratified.

President Akufo-Addo also affirmed the WTO boss’s observation, confirming that Ghana is indeed making a big investment by digitising operations at all levels of social life as well as in the areas of trade and service delivery.

About the WTO

The World Trade Organization is the only global body dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by most of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments.

The goal of the WTO is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.

The WTO has many roles: it operates a global system of trade rules, it acts as a forum for negotiating trade agreements, it settles trade disputes between members and it supports the needs of developing countries.

All major decisions are made by the WTO’s member governments: either by ministers (who usually meet at least every two years) or by member states’ ambassadors/delegates, who meet regularly in Geneva. A set of simple, fundamental principles form the foundation of the multilateral trading system.

The primary purpose of the WTO is to open up trade for the benefit of all. The organisation’s top decision-making body is the Ministerial Conference. Below this is the general council and various other councils and committees. Ministerial conferences usually take place every two years.

The General Council is the top day-to-day decision-making body. It meets a number of times a year in Geneva. The WTO has over 160 members, representing 98% of world trade. Over 20 countries are seeking to join the organisation.

For a country to become a member state, its government has to bring its economic and trade policies in line with WTO rules and negotiate its terms of entry with the existing WTO members. The organisation has approximately 650 staff on its core payroll.

Wilberforce Asare

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