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WTO summit tackles controversial trade liberalisation

Representatives of the 135-member World Trade Organisation, which includes Switzerland, on Tuesday begin what promises to be one of the most controversial international meetings on how to move ahead with trade liberalisation.

This content was published on November 30, 1999 - 08:46

Representatives of the 135-member World Trade Organisation, which includes Switzerland, on Tuesday begin what promises to be one of the most controversial international meetings on how to move ahead with trade liberalisation.

Thousands of delegates attending a WTO ministerial meeting in the U.S. city of Seattle will try to agree on measures to boost world commerce by breaking down barriers to free trade, import tariffs, quotas and subsidies for domestic producers.

Representatives of the world’s top trade body will also debate anti-dumping measures, competition, investments and access to markets.

The Seattle talks promise to see some heated debates as divisions run deep over just how far – and if at all – trade liberalisation should move ahead.

Following are some of the most controversial issues on the agenda:

-- Labour standards: United States and European labour unions say cheaper wages and poorer working conditions amount to an unfair trade tactic used by developing nations. But the developing nations say their more affordable labour is a competitive advantage that has enabled their economies to soar ahead in recent decades. They also say it would be unfair to force them to quickly adopt labour and environmental standards that evolved over many decades in wealthier countries.

-- Agriculture: The United States wants to break down trade barriers for food. The proposal faces strong resistance from the 15-nation European Union, where millions of farmers do not want to lose their agriculture subsidies. EU farmers, on the other hand, want the WTO to address concerns about genetically-modified food products from the U.S. and Canada.

-- Trade subsidies: Japan and South Korea are among nations which are angered by the U.S. use of anti-dumping laws, which prohibit export sales of manufactured goods at below their cost. Critics say Washington uses the rules to restrict trade.

The trade debate in Switzerland over the past months largely reflected international divisions, as environmental organisations and Third World lobby groups called on the Swiss government not to support the “dogmatic and destructive” stance of the WTO – particularly in the agriculture sector.

But the Swiss government, which essentially wants to see further trade liberalisation, rejected the criticism of the WTO, which is based in Geneva.

“We naturally do not support mindless liberalisation of agriculture. What we want instead is deregulation that takes into account the many (social and environmental) aspets linked with agriculture,” said a Swiss economics ministry spokesman in the run-up to the talks.

From staff and wire reports.


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