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WTO meet endangered by own draft declaration, not bombs

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 31 Oct (IPS) - The authorities in Qatar have 12,000 uniformed agents ready to protect the delegations to the fourth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) next week, but they have no way to ensure harmony among the trade ministers representing the 142 member states.

The climate of international insecurity arising from the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and the subsequent US-led military strikes against Afghanistan, had raised doubts as to whether the ministerial conference would be held at all.

But preparations are receiving their final touches for the meet in Doha, Qatar’s capital, on 9-13 November.

[For the second time this week, the pro-WTO Financial Times, reported about the security concerns of the US and other western officials and businessmen about the security concerns over holding the meeting in Doha, and in effect accusing the US Vice-President Dick Cheney of disregarding security concerns in assuring the Emir of Qatar that the US delegation will participate. Meanwhile, other media reports said that Washington has advised Congressmen, top businesses and non-governmental groups about the security risks.

[In Geneva itself, the WTO appears to be set on proving that it is not a members-driven, rules-based organization, but one functioning without any authority of rules and driven only by one or two members. When the General Council met formally to discuss the ‘draft ministerial declaration and other documents for Doha’, the Chairman of the General Council, Mr. Stuart Harbinson made clear that he will not revise his one-sided drafts, but will forward it to ministers, and it would be for ministers to decide at Doha.]

The organising committee has announced that it can guarantee the security of the approximately 4,000 participants expected to arrive in the Persian Gulf emirate next week.

However, no one is providing any assurances about the political success of the gathering, and even less so since the release this week in Geneva of the final draft of the conference’s declaration, which is to be submitted to the ministers for debate, and ultimately for their signatures.

The text presented by Stuart Harbinson, chair of the WTO General Council, triggered a chorus of protests, some considered exaggerated - coming from the European Union and other industrialised countries -, and some that were to be expected - coming from the developing South and from the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in particular.

The declaration also came under fire from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specialising in trade issues, charging that it is biassed in favour of industrialised countries.

The draft document produced by Harbinson, Hong Kong’s representative before the WTO, needs improvement, say European officials, who want the negotiations in Doha to cover a broad range of issues in order to dilute and counterbalance the difficulties they are facing in the debate on the key area of agricultural trade.

The European Union (EU), as well as Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway and the US maintain systems of heavy state subsidies for their farming sectors.

The draft document covers the principal aspirations of the Europeans by proposing the opening of talks on “new issues,” which include competition rules, investment, transparency in public contracts and the facilitation of trade.

But Pascal Lamy, the EU’s trade commissioner, complained that the text does not meet Europe’s expectations on matters like the environment and the relationship of the WTO with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as far as basic labour standards.

The criticisms coming from the developing world, meanwhile, were expressed in more general terms.

Speaking on behalf of the LDCs, Tanzanian ambassador Ali Said Mchumo stated that the final document reflects the demands of industrialised countries.

“Overall, one could say the balance is tilted against developing countries, and certainly against the views of LDCs,” said Mchumo.

Along the same lines, the Nigerian delegation before the WTO said the text is “unsatisfactory because it is one-sided ... and accommodates in total the interests of developed countries, while disregarding the concerns of the developing and least developed countries.”

A Latin American trade negotiator observed that Harbinson’s final draft of the declaration is a variation on the previous version, as the items of greatest interest to developing countries are now expressed in potential terms, replacing the imperative tone of older drafts.

As far as the relationship of public health and trade-related intellectual property rights, a matter which developing countries consider particularly important, the chair of the WTO General Council failed to come up with a compromise text, so he presented two versions of that chapter.

One version incorporates the demands of African countries, and of Brazil and India, in favour of maximum flexibility in access to medications, allowing governments to supercede the patents held by pharmaceutical laboratories in cases of health emergencies - like the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The alternative version of the chapter represents the position of the industrialised countries, which are home to the big pharmaceutical transnationals, pointed out Mchumo.

Oxfam International, a non-governmental humanitarian group based in London, says that the US, alongside Japan, Switzerland and Canada, “are obstructing attempts to strengthen health safeguards in the WTO agreement on patents, putting at risk the lives of millions of people living in poverty.”

The drug industry “has been lobbying on an unprecedented scale to stop any threats to the sanctity of their patents,” stated David Earnshaw, director of Oxfam’s campaign for access to low-cost medications.

Meanwhile, the Global Citizens Movement, consisting of 13 NGOs, charges that the US “has led unbending opposition to the implementation agenda,” referring to another key demand of developing countries: wealthy nations must enact the trade treaties they have left pending.

The Nigerian delegation stated that “all implementation issues should be addressed and resolved at Doha, in accordance with an earlier decision of the General Council.”  - SUNS5000

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