Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez (File photo)

MANILA – Due to the emergence of the new Omicron variant and the latest Swiss government’s travel restrictions, the highly anticipated 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland was indefinitely postponed.

The Ministerial Conference is expected to tackle several key trade and investment issues necessary to enhance international trade rules and address the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the expected outcome of the conference would be the conclusion of the Fisheries Subsidies negotiation and Ministerial decisions or statements on trade and public health including access to vaccines and medicines, e-commerce, investment facilitation, and services domestic regulations.

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Ramon Lopez said the Philippines has been fully engaging and was looking forward to the said conference to secure its national interest amidst shared global challenges including on the pandemic.

However, he said he fully understands and agrees with the postponement, considering the tightened travel restrictions imposed by the Swiss government and the health risk for the delegates, posed by the new Covid-19 variant Omicron.

Among the issues that the Philippines will be pushing are decisions on trade and health initiatives that would make vaccines and therapeutics more inclusive, and the conclusion of fisheries subsidies negotiation.

“Access to safe, effective affordable and high-quality diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines has been a consistent policy advocated by President Duterte, Foreign Secretary Locsin and DTI across all fora such as in the recent meetings of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and in bilateral engagements, and a concrete decision at the WTO forum on trade and health would have been a milestone in addressing this objective,” Lopez said in a news release Saturday.

“This cancellation due to the new variant drives the point that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and it illustrates the relevance and responsibility of WTO members to address any and all issues that prevent inclusive access to vaccines and therapeutics,” he added.

Lopez said they have been working closely with the private sector to encourage investments not only in the manufacturing of vaccines and medicines but even in research and development and clinical trial test.

“Research and development is a critical component of this exercise as the virus continues to evolve and mutate. In the same manner manufacturing and distribution of vaccines must be sustained as the demand continues and the need for booster shots is now imperative,” Lopez said.

With a conducive investment regime in the country and the available sufficient incentives under the recent reforms including the CREATE law, it is expected that the country can attract more investments in the pharmaceutical sector.

The Philippine delegation which is led by Lopez, together with co-lead Agriculture Secretary William Dar, also aims to push for the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations where the Philippines’ main objective is to ensure that no geographic area is carved out just because a territorial issue is raised by a member state.

“In addressing issues and concerns on fisheries subsidies, it is important that relevant international laws are considered particularly on the issue of territoriality or delimitation of maritime jurisdiction”, Dar said.

In the lead-up to the MC12, the Philippines prepared to actively engage in the discussions on services domestic regulations, investment facilitation for development, MSMEs, e-commerce, gender and women empowerment, and sustainable trade.

“Despite the postponement, we will continue to engage in domestic and international work towards the attainment of our national objectives,” Lopez said.

The DTI gave a briefing on November 23 to Congress, including to Senator Koko Pimentel, Congresspersons Joey Salceda, and Frances Castro. A mechanism for real-time coordination between Congress and the Executive would have been established to ensure the Philippines’ full participation in MC12.

The WTO consists of 164 members. The 12th Ministerial Conference follows the one held in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2017. Initial plans were made to hold the meeting in Kazakhstan in June 2020 but it was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Ministerial Conference is the highest decision-making body of the WTO which usually meets every two years. It brings together all members of the WTO, all of which are countries or customs territories. The Ministerial Conference can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements. (PR)