On Friday, the 142-member World Trade Organization begins a five-day meeting in Doha, capital of Qatar. The purpose of the meeting is to draft an agenda for a new round of talks on lowering trade barriers. The delegates coming to Doha have security on their minds as well as world trade.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, there were serious discussion about moving the World Trade Organization conference from Qatar, a Muslim country, to somewhere outside the Mideast, possibly Singapore.
But officials in Doha satisfied the security concerns of the WTO, and the ministerial meeting gets underway Friday.
Asked if there was any sense of uneasiness, a WTO official said, quote, "we've never felt safer." Even so, Taiwan's delegation of 33 arrived in Doha with gas masks and anti-anthrax antibiotics in their luggage. A Taiwanese official explained the precautions were in case of a biological attack during the conference.
On the agenda are more than 100 items for the ministers to discuss, but about 40 of them have been earmarked for priority consideration.
WTO spokesman, Keith McCormick, says the majority of them concern difficulties faced by developing countries in carrying out past trade agreements. "Developing countries have had a great deal of difficulty, in many cases, actually implementing the agreements which were struck as part of the Uruguay round of negotiations which ended in 1994," he said. "These implementation problems include a wide range of WTO agreements including textiles, anti-dumping, subsidies, agriculture, intellectual property, etc. And it's been worked out among negotiators in Geneva that a roster of about 40 or so items have been presented to ministers for their decision."
The World Bank says liberalizing trade agreements globally could have the potential to lift millions of people in the developing world out of poverty.
However, according to Razeen Sally with the London School of Economics, fear of a worldwide recession might tempt some ministers to use the meeting to adopt policies to limit imports. He says the WTO delegates must have a vision that looks beyond the current economic downturn. "In the short term, after September 11, the world economy is heading into a recession," he said. "Recession will inevitably bring projectionist pressures that will harm developing countries, in particular and launching the right kind of trade negotiations at the Doha ministerial will probably help to revive growth in the world economy and at the end of the day deliver extra liberalization and that will be good, all round, especially for developing countries."
The key issues at this year's meeting will be the reduction or elimination of agricultural export subsidies. Developing countries complain they can't afford to pay the subsidies and are therefore prevented from exporting more products.
Another key issue is patents on drugs. To help in the fight against AIDS, many developing countries are demanding an easing of WTO rules protecting drug patents held by pharmaceutical companies.
The ministers will also be discussing environmental issues, labor rights, and the lack of implementation of previous agreements.