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Future Uncertain after WTO Talks Collapse

Diego Cevallos, Inter Press Service (IPS)

CANCUN, Sep 14 (IPS) -- The WTO ministerial conference in the Mexican resort of Cancun came to an abrupt end Sunday without an agreement, leaving a big question mark hanging over the future of the international trade talks.

The negotiations have collapsed, the positions are very distant, and there is no possibility of reaching an accord, at least for now, said delegates of several governments. The talks will continue at WTO (World Trade Organisation) headquarters in Geneva, they added.

The sensation of failure with which the five-day gathering ended triggered a burst of elation among activists and the representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who gave shouts of joy and even jumped up and down and danced when they heard the news that no final statement had been agreed.

The trade ministers of the 146 WTO member countries hoped to agree on a final declaration Sunday, or else planned to continue meeting through Monday. But after hours of intense negotiations, the gridlock remained, despite the Mexican government's efforts until the last minute--as host--to achieve a compromise statement.

''Talks have collapsed and there is no agreement. It's over. We'll see each other at the next meeting in two years,'' George Odour Ong'wen, a member of the Kenyan delegation, told journalists.

The chairman of the WTO conference, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Derbez, said it made no sense to continue the discussions, because the positions were irreconcilable.

This is the second failed WTO conference since the world body was created in 1995. Talks also collapsed at the third ministerial meeting in Seattle, Washington, in 1999, amid massive street protests by the so-called ''anti-globalization'' movement.

''This is a triumph of reason, a triumph of the poor countries and civil society, because we could not allow the rich countries to once again impose their views and their pressure,'' Alberto Villareal, the head of the environmental group Friends of the Earth (news - web sites) International's trade campaign, told IPS.

In the last stretch of the talks, the ministers were working with a draft statement presented by Mexican government officials Saturday, which failed to resolve the question of farm subsidies, and did not set timeframes or deadlines for meeting certain commitments agreed in the Doha Development Agenda, which emerged from the last WTO conference two years ago.

The draft document also left pending the question of whether or not to move forward on ''new issues,'' such as cross-border investment and transparency in government procurement.

The draft statement, which was drawn up on the basis of the positions expressed in four days of talks, disappointed virtually everyone. The government delegates worked hard Sunday, without success, to achieve a consensus.

''If we reach no agreement here, we may go home with empty hands, a huge debt to developing countries, and doubts regarding the future of the WTO,'' a member of the Brazilian (news - web sites) delegation commented to IPS before the talks broke down.

Huge discrepancies between rich and poor countries, and among developing countries, persisted up to the end, said the source.

The meeting opened Sep. 10 with a marked polarization between the world's richest nations--the United States, the members of the European Union (news - web sites) (EU) and Japan--and a growing bloc of developing countries, led by Brazil, India and China, which has come to be called the Group of 22 (G-22).

After the failure of the talks was announced, the delegates of several G-22 members--Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and South Africa--told reporters that the bloc would remain united in future negotiations, wherever they were held. The talks on trade in agriculture will continue, they stressed.

Government delegates admitted that the draft declaration was extremely limited in scope.

The document, which aimed at a compromise, merely stated that the 146 WTO member countries reaffirmed their commitment to moving towards the objective of reducing the farm subsidies of industrialized nations, without setting timetables or targets for doing so.

It also stated that the eventual phasing out of subsidies would only apply to certain products.

''They are trying to reinterpret the mandates set out in the Doha declaration,'' which is unacceptable, said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin.

With respect to the majority of issues on which some kind of agreement was hoped for, the draft document only mentioned a commitment to continue negotiating at WTO headquarters in Geneva, under the Doha Development Agenda.

At the fourth WTO conference, held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in 2001, member countries agreed to move towards an international trade system that would help pull developing nations out of poverty.

The Doha round of trade talks was to have been completed by Jan. 1, 2005, but many observers already doubted that would happen, even before Sunday's failure in Cancun.

''The WTO has lead feet, and is moving slower and slower. I don't foresee a good future for it,'' said Villareal.

Since the Doha conference, the world's governments have failed to reach agreement on how and when to phase out agricultural subsidies, which amount to a combined total of over $1 billion a day in the United States and the EU.

''Frustration'' and ''discouragement'' were among the words repeated by government delegates when referring to the draft ministerial statement.

The most optimistic view, expressed by some delegations, was that the document was a ''starting-point'' from which to continue negotiating.

In the corridors of the conference Sunday, there was an air of worry and concern among the delegates, many of whom had warned at the start of the meeting that another failure would deal a harsh blow to the international trade system, which began to emerge in the late 1940s.

"The only thing we all agree on so far is that no one accepts the draft declaration, but we are working on refining it and on reaching an agreement," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said late Saturday.

Activists said the document ran counter to the interests of the developing world. Greenpeace Mexico spokesman Alejandro Calvillo told IPS that ''it's a good thing that this ended without an agreement.''

Europe and the United States are pushing developing countries into the abyss, and that was already seen in the base document for the Cancun meeting, said Friends of the Earth representative Ronnie Hall.

Phil Bloomer, with the British relief group Oxfam, said the WTO talks would never be the same again. Cancun failed due to the power and cohesion of developing countries, he maintained.

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Strange new bedfellows
Re: Strange new bedfellows
Re: Strange new bedfellows
...cohesion of the developing countries...cohesion *NM*

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