/ 1 January 2002

New WTO chief says trade must underpin development

New World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand pledged on Monday to work to ensure that global trade underpinned development and brought benefits to the poor as well as the rich.

But outlining his programme as the first head of a major global economic institution from a developing country, he said his prime task was to get the current Doha Round of free trade talks completed on time by the end of 2004.

And to ensure that was possible he issued an implicit appeal to the European Union and the United States — key players in the negotiations — to avoid any action that would heighten tension between them and make cooperation difficult.

”We are not trying to push globalisation at all costs,” the former Thai deputy premier and economic overlord declared.

And at the United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg, where he was heading later in the day, he would be underlining how world trade could be an integral part of the drive to promote sustainable development, he said.

The 55-year-old Supachai, a former banker who played a vital role in the 1980s and 1990s in opening up the once heavily-protected Thai economy to market forces, made clear he believed free trade, properly directed, was the way ahead.

”One of the most urgent issues we face is to move into the substantive phase of the Doha Development Agenda,” he said, using the official term for the round of liberalisation negotiations launched at a WTO conference in Qatar last year.

”Deadlines are important if we are to make this an efficient round…. We have no time to waste,” said Supachai, who took over at the WTO helm for a three-year term on Sunday from former New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore.


There were growing opportunities, working with other world bodies, ”to harness the process of globalisation that can generate benefits for all… so that we can help those who still lag behind to climb on board,” he argued.

The poorer countries, many of whom say they have gained little or nothing from previous global trade pacts, would then see their living standards climb as jobs were created for their people and real environmental protection became possible.

But the quiet-spoken economist, a skilled chess player who has undergone training as a Buddhist monk, recognised that opening wide markets for goods and services — especially in poorer economies — could cause problems in the shorter term.

”We will be looking at side issues, so that if trade is having a negative effect, we can see how we can alleviate that,” he told the news conference.

He indicated that he would be considering how he and WTO legal experts could help all 144 member countries avoid the head-on disputes whose resolution through a panel system has become a heavy drain on the resources of the body.

But asked if he might offer his good offices in cases like the tax break row between the EU and the United States in which WTO arbitrators last Friday said Brussels could impose sanctions worth $4-billion on US imports, he was cautious.

”I would not say I would be stepping in as a mediator. I don’t think I have that kind of ambition,” he said.

But asked what he might do in the tax case, he said he hoped all countries ”would do their best to find the most amicable means to solve their disagreements” without pushing them to the limit through the WTO dispute system or taking measures, like sanctions, that would hamper trade. – Reuters