#42 The G|O Briefing, March 2, 2021

A change of course at the WTO - Syria's crimes remain unpunished - China is winning the patents race

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, what a difference a few weeks can make. There are unmistakable signals that, from trade to human rights, what we call the “Geneva conversation” is taking a new direction in tone and substance.

As multilateralism and international cooperation enter a period of unprecedented fluidity, what happened yesterday (Monday, March 1) on the shores of Lake Geneva as Dr Okonjo-Iweala finally became the head of WTO potentially marks a remarkable moment in that ongoing transformation.

The nomination of a first African and first female Director-General was already a welcome and much needed powerful sign of change. Her formidable expertise in development and public health means she will approach trade differently, probably sealing the demise of the "Washington consensus"  which prevailed for the last quarter of a century.

As The G|O’s Jamil Chade reports, all indications are that after a long period of benign neglect under its previous D-G, D.r Okonjo-Iweala will be most active in steering the WTO’s metamorphosis.  

Also, in today's Geneva Observer, John Zarocostas peers over at the latest figures coming out of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). They leave no doubt as to the extent of China’s global lead in patents.


A WTO that delivers

A healthy bluntness was in evidence in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s first speech as WTO’s D-G. The message was not lost on the trade diplomats in Geneva and in their capitals: To reinstall the WTO at the heart of the trading system, political decisions, not arcane technical discussions, will have to dominate. But there lies both a promise: giving new momentum to the organization, and a risk: showing how deeply divided it might be when trying to find common rules between market and state capitalism.

“It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results,” she said.

She made it clear that trade is about people. “Many of you put in long hours and a great deal of effort to do good work, much of which goes unnoticed. There are excellent people in the capitals doing good work. We have talented staff in the Secretariat. But the world is no longer cognizant of this, does not recognize the effort because we are not delivering results at the pace required by our fast-changing environment,” she deplored.

“We have to be more accountable to the people we came here to serve—the ordinary women and men, our children who hope that our work here to support the multilateral trading system (MTS) will result in meaningful change in their lives, will improve their standard of living, and create decent jobs for those who seek work,” the Nigerian declared.

Act or else

She did not shy away from reminding her audience what was at stake: If reforms and decisions are not taken, the WTO faces the risk of becoming irrelevant: “Coming from the outside, I have noticed that the world is leaving the WTO behind. Leaders and decision-makers are impatient for change. Several trade ministers said to me that if things don’t change, they will no longer attend the Ministerial because it is a waste of their time,” she insisted.

“More and more of the work and decision-making that should be undertaken at the WTO is being done elsewhere because there is an increasing loss of confidence in the ability of the WTO to produce results. But there is hope. If we all accept that we can no longer do business as usual, that will help us create the parameters for success,” she concluded.

In a difficult geopolitical context, trade diplomats in Geneva share the new D-G’s analysis. “We know everyone’s positions. We know where the red lines are and for whom. We even know what the members’ plan B is,” one negotiator told The G|O. “What is needed now is a political decision on where to go.”

Another diplomatic source, however, told The G|O that the endless debates about trade technicalities might well have been a way not to force a clash among diverging members. “Breaking the stalemate will clearly reveal how broken the system currently is. But is there any other option?”

Seasoned observers of the WTO note that the early days of her tenure might prove decisive in her ability to take firm control of the organization while ensuring the cooperation of a majority of members without being entirely beholden to them. They see her approach to the COVID-19 crisis as a first bell-weather on what kind of leadership she will bring to the WTO and how she plans to integrate political and social considerations into the discussions. On that score, too, the former GAVI Chairwoman made her intentions clear in her maiden address:

“I propose that we ‘walk and chew gum’ by also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that have yet to vaccinate a single person. People are dying in poor countries. The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines, and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses. This is just very difficult, so we must focus on working with companies to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries.”

“We must get them to work with us on know-how and technology transfer now. There will soon be a world manufacturing convention where we can seek to build this partnership. I also hope we can initiate a dialogue and information exchange between representatives and us of manufacturers' associations from developing and developed countries. This should happen soon so we can save lives. As I said at the beginning, this will be an interim solution whilst we continue the dialogue on the TRIPS waiver,” she concluded.

That may not sound like a WTO D-G talking. But it is a clear indication that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that her organization's remit ought to be broadened and that she has the wherewithal to make it happen.


Elsewhere in the ecosystem

Syria: A decade later

A decade ago, Geneva was the epicenter of hope for many of the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. In March 2011, weeks after the war began, the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was created. It would gather evidence for future trials and put pressure on the warring parties.

But, after a decade of conflict and with no access to Syria, the hopes that the victims might have placed on the impact of such reports have mostly been dashed, even though the latest UN Commission’s report based on over 2,500 interviews and investigations into more than 100 specific detention facilities confirms massive human rights abuses and a total absence of accountability. The report spares no one, as it notes the massive scale of detention, disappearances, and patterns of crimes and abuses perpetrated by the government, and the detention practices of armed groups, including under coalitions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Syrian National Army (SNA), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as the UN-designated terrorist groups Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The UN Commission of Inquiry also suffers from a major flaw, say human rights defenders: the information and evidence gathered by these processes often are of no value to prosecutors.  The commissioners lack the capacity to gather, authenticate, or analyze documentary evidence.

-JC, with additional reporting from Philippe Mottaz

China extends global lead in international patents applications, with double-digit growth in 2020

Innovation is the principal driver in the increasingly digitalised global economy, and dominance in this area will shape competitiveness in the 21st century and largely determine which center of power dominates and leads in this new era.

Currently, China and the United States are the main contenders in this race for global technological dominance, although the European Union also has aspirations.

The latest annual report by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shows that China is surging ahead in critical elements of this ecosystem and has widened its lead as the world's top investor nation in 2020 (for the second year), posting a 16.1 % increase in international patent applications with 68,720 filings, up from 59,193 a year earlier. The United States came in a distant second with 59,230 new applications, up 3 % on its performance in 2019. Until a few years ago, the US was the undisputed leader in international patent applications.

Last year, Japan trailed behind the US, with 50,520 applications (-4.1%), followed by the Republic of Korea with 20,060 applications (+5.2%), and Germany, with 18,643 applications (-3.7%).

Overall, 275,900 international patent applications were filed, up 4% in 2020, via the WIPO Patent Cooperation Treaty—the global accord that allows inventors and industry to obtain patent protection in multiple countries—and viewed as one of the metrics for measuring innovative activity worldwide.

Computer technology accounted for a 9.2 % share of total filings, followed by digital communication (8.3%), medical technology (6.6%), and electrical machinery (6.6%). Of interest, China-based telecom giant Huawei Technologies was the top filer with 5,464 applications.

Perhaps the most salient feature in the latest WIPO report is the shifting landscape in research centers of excellence and the number of applications filed. Not so long ago, US educational institutions dominated the top 10 rankings in patent applications filed by educational institutions. Now, the top 10 university list comprises five universities from China, four from the US, and one from Japan. The data reveal the big gains in basic research by China and reflect the big outlay in funds the Government has injected into R&D in recent years.

In 2020, the University of California (Caltech) with 559 applications continued to head the university list, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with 269 applications. Chinese institutions in the top ten, include 3rd placed Shenzhen University with 252 filings, followed by Tsinghua University (231) and 5th placed Zhejiang University (209).


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas

Edited by: Paige Holt