Commonwealth leaders open summit in Malta

Commonwealth leaders began meeting on Friday with an opening call to use their summit to send a clear message to next month's world trade talks in Hong Kong, that poor countries expect the negotiations to deliver greater benefits from global markets. Complaints about human rights problems, including in Commonwealth member Uganda, also will get an airing at the three-day, closed-door summit on this Mediterranean island, according to officials.

At the opening ceremony, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II stood out in a scarlet coat and hat against a sea of dark-suited prime ministers. A couple of female leaders, including New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, and a sprinkling of princes were among the 53 heads of government seated behind the queen, who is head of the Commonwealth. Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Howard of Australia and the other Commonwealth leaders gathered for three days of informal talks at a resort in Golden Bay on this former British colony which last year joined the European Union.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said the club, whose members share much of the heritage of the former British colonial empire and include developing countries in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, should take up the cause of the poorer nations in crucial global trade talks in Hong Kong.

"This is a test of Commonwealth leadership," McKinnon said. "If we can give the World Trade Organization talks the shot in the arm that it requires, then we would have shown" the Commonwealth works. With Commonwealth countries accounting for some 1.8 billion people, any consensus about access to global markets that shapes up in Malta could impact the Hong Kong talks.

There is a "high level of despondency" on the part of developing nations and "a low level of ambition" on the part of the industrialized world ahead of the talks, McKinnon said.

"Much was promised" in the way of benefits for developing countries in the current round of global trade talks, but so far little has been delivered, McKinnon said. The so-called Doha Round of World Trade Organizations negotiations begin Dec. 13 in Hong Kong.

New Zealand's Clark, speaking to business leaders at a Commonwealth forum here on Thursday, urged EU negotiators to make concessions on agriculture at Doha, named after the Qatari capital where the talks began in 2001.

"Clearly European Union negotiators are in a difficult position," Clark said. "European Union member states have been unwilling to do more. But it is hard to see how the Doha Round can succeed unless they do."

She spoke as EU negotiators in Brussels, Belgium, agreed Thursday on a landmark overhaul of its sugar subsidy program, cutting prices by 36 percent, to likely strengthen the EU's hand in the WTO talks, reports the AP. I.L.

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