Later this week, the World Trade Organization convenes its fourth ministerial meeting, at Doha in Qatar. The meeting is the highest-level WTO gathering since the debacle in Seattle two years ago, and the world trade body is looking for a successful session to restore its reputation. But the timing is problematic, coming soon after the terror attacks on the U.S. in September. Security is tight and some members have reduced the size of their delegations. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker spoke to officials of the WTO and found them cautiously optimistic about prospects for success.
Prague, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officials of the World Trade Organization say they feel a new "constructive spirit" among members to resolve long-standing trade disputes during a WTO ministerial summit set to begin on 9 November.
They say the 11 September terror attacks on the U.S. and concern for the health of the world economy have helped galvanize support among members for a new round of trade negotiations. A new round of talks could lead to significant reductions in tariffs as well as agreements on thorny issues such as setting standards for intellectual property and foreign investment.
Josep Bosch, an official at the Geneva-based WTO, tells our correspondent that the terror attacks reminded WTO members how important trade is in keeping the economy healthy: "This [the terror attacks] is one of the reasons. Because -- I saw the other day -- I heard a lot of countries say: 'Listen, after 11 September, the economy is not bright, there's a possibility of a worldwide recession.' So, it would be very important for us to send a clear signal to the economy of the world that at least in terms of trade we should do something positive. The understanding here is that if you increase trade, you increase the prospects for growth and for employment."
The threat to the world economy is real. WTO director-general-designate Supachai Panitchpakdi told an economic conference yesterday in Malaysia that he foresees a global recession lasting the whole of next year.
His comment comes just a week after the release of statistics showing that the U.S. economy, the world's largest national economy, contracted in the third quarter of the year, reversing a string of over eight years of uninterrupted economic growth. Japan is already in recession and some statistics show the European Union's euro-zone economies are now contracting as well.
The Doha meeting will be the WTO's first ministerial-level meeting since a disastrous summit two years ago in the U.S. city of Seattle.
That summit was riven by internal disagreements between developed and lesser-developed countries, and an external battle that pitted the WTO against thousands of environmental and fair-trade activists. The protesters accused the WTO of promoting trade practices that favored industrialized countries at the expense of poorer ones.
By all accounts, the Seattle summit was a fiasco. WTO members failed to reach agreement on any significant point other than the need for more meetings. Additionally, the protesters' success in disrupting the meeting inspired a nascent anti-globalization movement that has continued to grow and dog international gatherings ever since.
Asked if Doha will be a repeat of Seattle, Bosch had this to say: "Well, we hope not. And I think everybody hopes not -- at least [everyone] at the WTO. The proof of that is for the last two years, people have been preparing very steadily for this meeting. There were about a hundred-plus meetings of different groups and most of [the meetings involved] all of the members of the WTO to prepare for a ministerial declaration that would try to incorporate the wishes of every country."
Bosch says the member states are set to discuss a draft declaration on 10 November calling for a new round of trade talks. He says the draft has wide backing from members.
The potential benefits of further trade liberalization are huge. The "Financial Times" newspaper on 6 November cites a University of Michigan study showing that if trade barriers were reduced by one-third, the gain to total global income would be on the order of $600 billion.
But the obstacles are also enormous, and two years after Seattle, Bosch says talks could still bog down on key issues. He mentions some potential sticking points: "For instance, agriculture is always a very difficult area here at the WTO. For instance, intellectual property and access to medicines or public health, that's another difficult point. Anti-dumping, that is also very important for some countries and that would be difficult. The environment -- negotiations to consider the implications of trade on the environment. That's going to be a sticking point. And finally, the proposal from the European Union to establish a set of rules for countries to invest in somebody else. Investment and competition. How to make a fair game for everybody in countries where you have monopolies and cartels."
At the heart of the disagreement is a fissure between the developed countries, primarily the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, and much of the rest of the world.
That problem is compounded by the size of the organization -- 142 member states -- and the need for consensus among all members on important issues.
Representatives from Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America have been cool toward calls for a new round of comprehensive trade talks, saying that before a new round is convened, industrialized countries should agree to open their markets more to raw materials and textiles from poorer countries.
The sense among many developing countries is that the gains accruing from an earlier round of tariff-reduction talks -- the Uruguay round in 1994 -- went largely to the industrialized north.
This fissure is most noticeable in agriculture. The European Union, U.S., and Japan heavily subsidize food production, and officials are loathe to open their markets to cheaper products from the developing world. And the trend, at least in the EU, is toward more restrictions rather than fewer as consumers have become increasingly concerned over the quality of food.
The EU is also pushing a measure that would clarify WTO environmental standards. This is opposed by many poorer countries, which see the move as a way for the EU to introduce new trade restrictions.
One of the highlights of the ministerial meeting will be the twin elections of China and Taiwan as WTO members.
For China, the vote follows 15 years of difficult negotiations with the world trade body. The election of both countries is considered a near certainty.
So important is the vote to China and to its mammoth export industry that Chinese state television is planning five hours of live coverage on the evening of 10 November.
Some have questioned the timing of the meeting, coming so soon after the terror attacks. WTO officials in October considered postponing the summit but were assured by Qatari officials that security would be adequate.
Nevertheless, many members -- including the U.S. -- have reduced the size of their delegations.
The relatively remote location and the increased security have posed a problem for the anti-globalization movement looking to renew their protests against the WTO.
Qatari officials have made fewer than 1,000 visas available to demonstrators and large-scale protests are not expected.
George Monbiot, a British-based anti-globalization organizer and a frequent commentator to "The Guardian" newspaper, says the Qatar location was chosen purely because of the difficulties it posed to protesters: "Well, plainly we can't stage a large protest in Doha, in Qatar, for the simple reason that you are not allowed to do that there. And it seems the venue was chosen for precisely that reason."
The WTO rejects that charge, saying that after the Seattle meeting, Qatar was the only country that offered to host the summit.
In any event, protests would probably have been muted in the wake of the terror attacks. Anti-globalization demonstrators had been planning to stage parallel protests in New York and other cities to coincide with the Doha summit, but they canceled those plans out of concern that large-scale protests coming at this time would be seen as unpatriotic.