Community Scoop

WTO Ministerial Conference Must Be Postponed As Omicron Variant Closes Borders

Press Release – University of Auckland

The World Trade Organizations (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference of trade ministers (MC12) is was? scheduled to begin in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday, 30 November. The new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 has thrown an already shambolic event

Update: The WTO Ministerial Conference has been postponed.

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference of trade ministers (MC12) was scheduled to begin in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday, 30 November.

“The new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 has thrown an already shambolic event into a deep crisis”, reports Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey.

With cases so far identified in Southern Africa, Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, and the risks of contagion and severity still unknown, governments have been quick to close their borders.

Overnight, Swiss authorities issued a declaration that, translated, reads:

“[..] There is a possibility that the previous vaccines may be less effective. The federal government immediately took measures to prevent or at least slow down the spread of the new variant in Switzerland as far as possible. All direct flights from the region of southern Africa are banned. When entering from the South Africa region, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, all persons must also present a negative Covid-19 test from November 26, 2021, 8 p.m. and be in quarantine for 10 days. Entry from these countries is no longer possible for persons who are not Swiss citizens or who have a residence permit in Switzerland or in the Schengen area.”

As Professor Kelsey observes, travel bans will make it impossible for ministers, officials and non-government delegates from some countries to enter Switzerland or transit en route. Others face compulsory quarantine for the entire period of the MC12.

Non-EU countries that rely on their Brussels-based delegations to represent them, which are mainly the poorer developing countries, will be unable to attend.

The infected Brussels case tested positive on 22nd November, some considerable time after they entered Belgium. Uncertainty about how far the Omicron variant may already have spread already within Europe could result in further restrictions, even for ministers and officials from within the Schengen Area.

Professor Kelsey highlights the critical consequences for the ministerial conference.

“The WTO’s core functions are currently paralysed. Crucial decisions about the future of the Organization are up for negotiation at this meeting. Decisions are meant to be Member-driven and made by consensus. That requires the active participation of all 164 Member states. Clearly that can’t now happen.”

“To proceed with the MC12 under these conditions will rob the WTO, and any decisions made by those who do attend, of any vestage of credibility. The ministerial conference has to be postponed.”

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