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WTO Discusses Global Trade Treaty - 2003-09-14

In Mexico, trade ministers from 146 nations are debating language in a draft accord that would provide a framework for a global trade treaty.

At issue are the agricultural subsidies industrialized nations use to support farmers and the farm industry in their nations. This often results in such commodities as basic grains being dumped on the international market, thereby undermining agriculture in poor, developing nations.

The draft, which was written by facilitators from five nations, calls for cuts in the subsidies. But it provides no details as to how much or over what time period. In a printed statement, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick reacted cautiously, saying that "there are positive elements, and there are other elements we will work to improve and clarify."

The United States and other industrialized nations have endorsed the idea of slashing subsidies, if there is some reciprocal action from developing nations in reducing tariffs and regulations that keep out many products from both developed and developing nations.

On the other hand, representatives of developing nations are condemning the draft as too weak and lacking in details.

Meanwhile, a few kilometers from the WTO meeting site, a few thousand protesters from around the world remain camped near police barricades. On Saturday, protesters used metal-cutting tools to break through a large steel barricade. Mexican federal police dressed in riot gear and backed by water cannon-equipped armored vehicles held their ground, and the protesters pulled back. A few demonstrators did manage to get near the meeting site to suspend a banner from a pedestrian bridge, but there were no major incidents.

David, a protester from Seattle, says he came to show that not everyone in his country agrees with U.S. policy.

"There are a lot of people in the United States who do not like what the United States and other wealthy countries are doing in the world, and it is not okay, not only with people who are being oppressed in the world, but also with a lot of people in the United States," he said.

The protesters at this meeting range from groups totally opposed to international trade to those who want completely unfettered trade with no WTO standing in the way. There are also leftist political groups of various stripes, anti-war activists and environmental groups. This lack of a clear message, coupled with the success of the Mexican police in keeping the demonstrators from the meeting site has severely reduced the impact of the dissenters.

The WTO meeting is to end in the coming hours and ministers remain hard at work to resolve differences over the draft. Some predict a negative impact on the world economy, if this meeting ends with no clear framework for talks going forward. But others say it would be better to postpone debate over vexing issues, rather than produce something that is untenable.