Geneva | Reuters — World Trade Organization members were at odds on Friday over a proposal that would ban countries from restricting food aid deliveries, potentially complicating the response to a feared COVID-fuelled humanitarian catastrophe next year.
The proposal was one of two related to the pandemic that failed to make headway at a three-day meeting of the Geneva-based trade body, an outcome its spokesman described as “disappointing” in a difficult year for the institution.
The 164-member WTO, currently leaderless and with no functioning appeals body for trade disputes, is facing the biggest crisis in its 25-year history.
U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea, in his final major address to the organization this week, described “wide divergences among the membership” and said the WTO had underperformed.
However, critics blame the Trump administration for its difficulties, saying Washington has hamstrung the WTO by blocking the appointment of a new director-general and opposing judge appointments to its top court.
Close to 100 countries voiced support for the food aid proposal, originally submitted by Singapore, which envisaged a ban on export restrictions on food intended for the World Food Program (WFP).
The U.N. agency, which won a Nobel Peace Prize this year for its work combating global hunger, has warned that 2021 will be “catastrophic” with famines possible due partly to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said WTO members, who must decide by consensus, could not agree. Some countries appeared to have concerns the proposal might impinge on their own domestic food security, he added, saying India was among them.
WFP’s Tomson Phiri said that a ban would have been a “shot in the arm” for his organization, describing how blockages had delayed rice deliveries to West Africa earlier this year.
The other proposal on which WTO members could not agree was a waiver on IP rights for COVID medicines, Rockwell told reporters, confirming the outcome of a meeting last week.
The appointment of a new WTO director-general was also raised at Friday’s meeting and there was still no consensus.
“I think what the last three days have shown us very clearly is that we need a DG,” Rockwell said.
— Emma Farge is a Reuters correspondent covering the United Nations and related matters in Geneva.