The head of the World Trade Organization on Thursday expressed optimism about clinching a long-awaited deal to stop overfishing, but some developing countries were critical of the draft agreement, with India calling aspects of it “unjust.”

The virtual conference in Geneva, the first meeting of WTO trade ministers since 2017, aims – after 20 years of talks – to fix rules to curb harmful subsidies that lead to overfishing.

The global trade body has not reached a multilateral deal in years and Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who took office in March, said at the start of the ministerial conference that it would be a “litmus test” of the WTO’s ability to do so.

“I believe that we are all genuinely committed, but a shift of mindset is necessary for us to bridge the final gaps that continue to separate members,” she said in opening remarks at the WTO headquarters in Geneva.

“You can send a powerful signal – one way or the other – about the WTO’s credibility as a multilateral negotiating forum.”

However, several ministers expressed deep reservations about the current draft agreement, which is the fifth version and has taken months of negotiations to prepare.

“Clearly, it will lead to capacity constraints for developing countries, while advanced nations will continue to grant subsidies,” Indian trade minister Piyush Goyal commented, on one part of the text. “This is unequal, unfair, unjust.”

Pakistan described the draft as “regressive and unbalanced.”

The European Union, a major subsidizer, was more upbeat, saying the draft formed the basis of a potential agreement as it “contains many elements for landing zones.”

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The comments point to a major gulf between wealthier countries and developing countries that want to build up their fleets.

Negotiators got close to an agreement at the last WTO ministerial conference in 2017 but the talks collapsed, with some observers blaming developing countries who sought big exemptions.

Any deal needs all 164 parties to approve it by consensus.


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