Vol. 5 Num 418 Sat. July 30, 2005  

WTO meet does little to boost struggling trade talks

A meeting of the 148-nation World Trade Organisation drew to a close Friday with little done to energise struggling talks on a treaty to reduce global trade barriers.

Incoming WTO chief Pascal Lamy, who takes over on September 1 from current director-general Supachai Panitchpadki, said efforts to deliver a deal must stay top of the agenda as a key summit looms.

"The coming months of preparation for the December Hong Kong Ministerial Conference will be instrumental to the future of our negotiations," he told a meeting of the WTO General Council, its top negotiating forum.

Trading nations are running out of time to revitalise the Doha Round of multilateral negotiations, launched in 2001 with the goal of reducing barriers to global commerce and using trade to boost developing countries.

WTO governments gathered this week at the organisation's Geneva base to take stock of efforts to reach an agreement, amid persistent splits on trade rules, notably farm subsidies.

The on-and-off talks in the so-called Doha Round have alternately raised and dashed hopes since their launch in the Qatari capital in 2001.

Member states earlier this year billed this week's WTO session as a chance to create a so-called "first approximation" -- a loose draft of the treaty they hope to have in place by 2006.

But that target was gradually lowered, and the meeting has taken the form of largely gloomy reports by top trade diplomats and a readout by Supachai, who has struggled for find solid grounds for optimism, even though he has said a deal is still possible by December.

The current WTO chief, who has repeatedly chastised governments for their sluggishness and failure to compromise, had his last chance to revive the talks this week.

The WTO goes into summer recess next month, and negotiations kick off again in September under Lamy's leadership.

On Thursday, Supachai sketched out what he believes trading nations must do in the remaining months before Hong Kong.

He urged them to bridge their differences by October and come up with a draft treaty by November, saying they cannot risk waiting until the last moment because that raises the spectre of the organisation's failed Seattle summit in 1999.

The Seattle conference collapsed after ministers were faced with making their minds up within days on a draft text that was riddled with unresolved sections.