The General Council agreed late Friday (26 November) to postpone the imminent Ministerial Conference after an outbreak of a particularly transmissible strain of the COVID-19 virus led several governments to impose travel restrictions that would have prevented many ministers from reaching Geneva.
The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) was due to start on November 30 and run 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,” Ambassador Castillo told the General Council. “I trust that you will fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”
Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the travel constraints 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.
She pointed out that 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.
WTO members were unanimous in their support of the recommendations from the Director-General and the General Council Chair, and they pledged to continue working to narrow their differences on key topics like the WTO’s response to the pandemic and the negotiations to draft rules slashing harmful fisheries subsidies.
The Director-General and Ambassador 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 DG said.
Director-General Okonjo-Iweala said she had scheduled a series of discussions over the weekend with ambassadors and visiting negotiators and that she planned to go ahead with these meetings. Negotiating group chairs said the same thing.
This marks the second time that the 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. Although the General Council decided to move the meeting to Geneva, Kazakhstan was chosen to chair the meeting and the country’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was due to give a keynote speech at the Conference’s opening ceremony on 30 November.
The Director-General and the General Council Chair, along with many ambassadors who took the floor, paid tribute to Kazakhstan for its support and commitment to the WTO and the multilateral trading system.
No date has been set for the rescheduling of the Ministerial Conference.