WTO Agenda Again Sparks Protests From Poor

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Delegates at a UN trade conference said Monday they are still far away from settling the disputes that caused the collapse of trade talks in Seattle last December.

Participants have hoped this week's UN Conference on Trade and Development in Bangkok would help heal the divisions over trade liberalization that wrecked the Seattle talks.

Officials from a number of nations said much still must be done to avoid the danger that the gap between rich and poor countries will widen because of free trade and to ensure poor countries have a full voice in the trade talks.

Many Third World countries have complained at the UNCTAD conference that developed countries dominate the WTO and that existing trade agreements favor rich nations by cutting tariffs on their products while leaving tariffs high on goods exported by many poor countries, such as textiles.

Rich countries also have failed to live up to pledges to grant preferential access to goods from poor countries, they say.

Such inequalities must be removed before any new trade talks are launched, said Martin Khor, head of the Malaysia-based Third World Network.

The chief U.S. delegate at the UNCTAD talks, Harriet Babbitt, dismissed hopes the week-long meeting would jump-start the WTO trade talks.

Babbitt, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Washington does not view the UNCTAD meeting as an appropriate venue to begin negotiations.

UNCTAD promotes trade as a way for poor countries to develop, while the WTO sets the rules that regulate trade.

Developing countries also say they are often unable to benefit from the WTO's free trade rules because they lack the facilities, capital and technology to make competitive goods.

For many countries in Africa, "not only has our share of international trade systematically declined, but we also lack the capacity to generate the resources required for our development," Nigerian Minister of Commerce Mustafa Bello said.

Instead of resembling a no-holds-barred boxing match, the world trading system should be modeled after a golf tournament, with handicaps granted to each participant in relation to his ability, said Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon.

Michael Bailey, senior policy adviser for the charity Oxfam, said free trade can only help poorer nations if everybody plays fairly.

"Currently, we think the developed countries are being extremely hypocritical," Bailey said. "They are committed preachers of liberalization for everybody else, but when it comes to the domestic markets a whole new series of arguments appear for why they shouldn't open up."

Developed countries are still balking at a proposal by WTO Director General Mike Moore that they remove all trade barriers for products from the world's 48 poorest countries.

Although the wealthy nations are prepared to give ground, the United States and Japan, among others, are concerned about the damage to their own producers if they open their markets.

Unlike the street protests at the WTO talks in December, there has been no violence and only the mildest of confrontations with police at the UNCTAD meetings.

With a typically gracious Thai touch, about 200 protesters denouncing the effects of power projects on Thailand's environment handed flowers Monday to UN officials and riot police to mark Valentines' Day.