WTO summit opens amid protests

World trade ministers on Tuesday began talks to salvage free-trade negotiations amid little hope for a major breakthrough, as thousands of protesters denounced the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as an enemy of the poor.

About 20 demonstrators forced their way into the conference centre where WTO director general Pascal Lamy was addressing the opening session of the WTO’s ministerial meeting.

“The WTO kills farmers,” and “No to the WTO” read signs brandished by the protesters clustered in the rear of the meeting hall.

Ministers will spend the next six days trying to salvage the Doha Round of trade negotiations, currently deadlocked over sharp regional disputes over agricultural subsidies and import tariffs.

Noting the difficulties ahead, Lamy told the conference: “Let us combine our hopes and strengths to advance the negotiations so that they can be completed in 2006.”

“Taking a bit of risk, a calculated risk ... will mean a chance for a level playing field for free and fair trade, in short for development,” he said.

An Australian trade official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday there was a mood of uncertainty at the conference.

“We’ve heard nothing so far that suggests we’re going to make a major breakthrough.”

Protests

In the presence of a huge security operation, determined to prevent a repeat of violence that has rocked previous WTO gatherings, several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong.

Under banners that read “WTO go to Hell”, “Junk the WTO” and “Fair trade for All”, protesters called for the dissolution of the world body.

Mock coffins were a popular choice of prop for many, including a group of Indonesian migrant workers who carried one inscribed with the words “WTO rest in pieces”.

Although the crowd was in buoyant mood, police were braced for trouble. Knots of heavily armed officers patrolled the march route, which took protesters past some of the most expensive real estate in Hong Kong.

The protest was mainly peaceful, although police used pepper foam to repel a group of about 50 protesters who tried to push their way through police lines near the conference venue.

The WTO, which is struggling to conclude market-opening negotiations launched four years ago in the Qatari capital, Doha, is routinely denounced by activists who accuse it of being hostile to the poor.

Another WTO conference is expected to be called around March in hopes that the Doha Round can be implemented by the end of 2006, when the talks must be concluded.

Key to the hopes of the world’s developing nations would be a breakthrough deal to cut the massive subsidies paid by developed nations to their farmers.

Pressure on EU

Ahead of the opening of the talks, the United States, Brazil and India had lined up to put pressure on the 25-nation European Union.

“They are distorting agriculture and they should remedy that,” Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said, echoing a steady stream of criticism of the EU’s stand on farm trade.

The EU, which along with others including the US and Japan pays billions of dollars to farmers every year, said on Monday it would not make further offers of compromise.

And on Tuesday, France said it would wield its EU veto if any further cuts were proposed.

While the US is pressing for a 55% to 90% cut in agricultural import tariffs, the EU has offered reductions in a range of 35% to 60%.

On farm support, Washington has said it is prepared to cut trade-distorting subsidies by 60% over five years, matched by an EU offer to make a 70% reduction in such assistance.

In the city-centre park where fair-trade activists had gathered ahead of the meeting, one of the campaigners, Pawkhuser, who like many people from Myanmar uses one name, explained that as a refugee in Thailand earning his living by farming, he is one of the people made vulnerable by the world trade system.

“It makes life really harsh for farmers.
My family are farmers. Before, farmers used cows to plough the land. Now markets have opened up and they have to compete with other countries.”

Beyond EU farm subsidies, another key issue will be the subsidies paid to cotton farmers in the US, with African delegates, whose economies depend on cotton exports, expected to press strongly for them to be cut.—Sapa-AFP

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