Ministers to urge free trade deal during WTO meet

Ministers to urge free trade deal during WTO meet

Geneva: Over a hundred ministers are gathering on Monday at a key World Trade Organization (WTO) conference, with developing countries set to urge a swift conclusion of negotiations on a global trade pact.

On the eve of the meeting, developing countries issued a statement calling for “urgent action" on the Doha Round of talks for a trade liberalization accord, which have foundered since they were launched at the Qatari capital in 2001.

While previous ministerial meetings have been venues for governments to make detailed offers and counter-offers, the World Trade Organization’s 153 member-states have decided that Doha is not officially on the agenda at the first gathering of its top decision-making body in four years.

“The very fact that Doha is not on the agenda shows that a deal is not in sight," said Romain Benicchio, a trade specialist with Oxfam.

Ministers are instead expected to stress their overall commitment to completing the round, even though such pledges have been made over the years and deadlines repeatedly missed.

The United States in particular will be under the spotlight.

Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim pointed in particular to “one country which is stopping us from moving forward," in an apparent reference to the United States.

Another Latin American diplomat was more explicit, saying: “We clearly lack an explicit position from one of the most important members of the negotiations. We are of course talking about the United States."

He added that the WTO ministerial meeting “should pressure" Barack Obama’s administration to take a deeper engagement on trade talks.

Since the change in administration in the United States, the new US trade representative, Ron Kirk, has revealed little about the Obama team’s position on Doha.

During a visit to Geneva in May, Kirk said WTO member states should consider a “new path" in order to get a swift conclusion. But since then, little progress has been logged.

Occupied by domestic problems such as health care and the war in Afghanistan as well as a Democratic-led Congress largely hostile to trade liberalization, the United States is dragging its feet on putting concrete trade reforms on the table, said analysts.

On the eve of the conference, Kirk said the United States was “playing a leadership role" at the WTO, and stressed that Washington remained committed to bringing the Doha Round to a close.

World leaders have set a 2010 target to conclude the Doha process, launched in the Qatari capital in November 2001.

With little progress in negotiations, WTO chief Pascal Lamy recently warned that “it will be difficult to get to 2010 without a serious acceleration of pace."