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Make-or-break WTO meeting goes down to the wire

06 december 2013, 18:03
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Indonesia's Vice Trade Minister Bayu Krinamurthi (R)  and British Trade Minister Stephen Green (L). ©AFP
Indonesia's Vice Trade Minister Bayu Krinamurthi (R) and British Trade Minister Stephen Green (L). ©AFP
Commerce ministers engaged in an eleventh-hour flurry of diplomacy on Friday, hoping to save a WTO package amid stark warnings that failure could permanently cripple the global trade body, AFP reports.

New World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo of Brazil is pushing for agreement on a modest package of measures at a conference on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, which ends Friday.

He is hoping a limited Bali accord can buy the organisation time for a future kick-start of its larger "Doha Round" of global negotiations aimed at stripping away trade barriers.

Top officials were bargaining "through the night" and into Friday, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said.

"There has been progress, there has been progress," he said.

The ministerial conference opened Tuesday under a cloud due to India's insistence that it be allowed to stockpile and subsidise grain for its millions of hungry poor.

The United States and others say that violates WTO rules on subsidies and fear the grain could enter markets, skewing world prices.

"The Indians are at the table still, they are still submitting proposals, they are still reviewing other proposals, and it's the same with all the other players who have interest in this particular issue," Rockwell said.

French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq had said the day before that India may be held responsible if the conference fails.

Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma -- who has rejected calls to compromise -- denied New Delhi was holding up a deal.

"No, we are trying to get justice for the poor people and the hungry people of the world," he said Friday.

Ministers have warned that a failure to reach a compromise on food subsidies and other issues in Bali could be the nail in the coffin for the WTO's larger agenda of freeing up trade through its "Doha Round" of talks.

The Doha effort was launched in Qatar in 2001 to liberalise trade and establish globally binding rules fair to both rich and poor countries.

But protectionist disputes, particularly between the industrialised and developing worlds, have repeatedly frustrated the effort.

A far more modest list of issues is under discussion in Bali. It is hoped an agreement can provide a springboard for keeping the Doha talks alive.

Azevedo has said the WTO risks being rendered obsolete by the rise of alternative regional pacts between major trading nations.

These include the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) spearheaded by Washington. TPP negotiators will meet in Singapore this weekend as they work to hammer out a deal.

Azevedo said such pacts cannot protect the interests of the developing world's masses of poor -- a key WTO mission.

New Delhi is demanding it be made exempt from any WTO challenges over its food policies indefinitely. The Bali package would limit the exemption period.

US opposition to India's demand was "hypocritical", said Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University in the United States, citing Washington's own huge support for American farmers.

"The US is calling India out for its food security programme even though India has 10 times the beneficiaries, provides less than one-quarter the food, and spends one-sixth the amount per person," he wrote in a commentary circulated in Bali.

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