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WTO to press ahead with trade talks in Qatar

WTO boss, Mike Moore (right) gave the thumbs up to Doha after talks with Qatar's finance minister, Yousef Hussain Kamal Keystone Archive

The World Trade Organisation's meeting in Doha is to go ahead as planned, despite security concerns.

After two days of talks with Qatari officials in Doha, WTO Director-General Mike Moore said the Geneva-based organisation’s 4th Ministerial Conference would be held as planned between November 9 and 13.

The meeting is expected to lead to a new round of global trade talks.

“We are going ahead. I am confident with the planning and preparations here in Doha,” Moore said, although he added that he might have to reconsider if “something seismic or catastrophic” were to happen.

A number of industrialised countries have expressed doubts about the wisdom of holding the high-profile meeting in an Islamic country at a time of rising anti-American sentiment.

The US is conducting a massive military campaign against targets in Afghanistan, in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Al-Qaida, the network of Islamic militants created by the alleged terrorist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, has issued thinly veiled warnings to any westerners living in the Gulf states, saying that “the land will burn under their feet”.

Terrorist action

“We shouldn’t let the actions of a few terrorists disrupt the work of an important organisation like ours,” says WTO spokesman, Keith Rockwell. “Assuring people that the WTO is ready to address the economic slowdown and moves towards protectionism is all the more important in the light of September 11.

“There’s a strong desire on the part of many governments to show that international organisations are functioning and functioning well,” he told swissinfo.

The WTO’s decision was immediately supported by Switzerland: “We are ready for Doha. Under the present circumstances, we see no reason for not going,” a spokesman at the Swiss mission in Geneva told swissinfo.

“We trust the organisers. We are sure they have taken the necessary measures to ensure the security of the event,” he added.

There had been suggestions that the conference could be moved to another location, with Singapore, Mexico and Switzerland mooted as possible venues. But the WTO says it would be logistically impossible to organise such a major gathering with only three weeks’ notice. Qatar has spent some $30 million on organising the event.

Great strides

Moore said that only “one, small country” had indicated that it would not attend the conference, although the WTO refused to name it.

“To date, we’ve had no other countries identifying this situation as being one they couldn’t cope with,” Rockwell said. Indeed, he added that there had been a great deal of activity between member states in preparation for the conference.

“We’ve made great strides in narrowing differences. There’s a broad consensus that the ministerial conference in Doha is the best way of launching a programme of future work that takes into account all our members’ interests,” Rockwell told swissinfo.

The spokesman said he had had no indication so far to suggest that some countries might send low-level representatives to Qatar. But clearly the likelihood remains that some ministers may prefer to stay away.

Moore suggested that the size of some of the 141 other delegations might be reduced, but he stressed that “participation has to be at the highest level”, if the talks were to be successful.

That success will be measured by whether progress is made in launching a new round of trade liberalisation talks, which have been stalled since the last WTO ministerial meeting collapsed in Seattle in 1999.

by Roy Probert

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