WTO negotiators reach agreement

A last-minute deal by WTO negotiators on ending farm export subsidies in their efforts to forge a global trade pact by late 2006 has drawn praise from government leaders and warnings that much work remains. The agreement late Sunday was a badly needed breakthrough for the World Trade Organization, whose credibility was on the line following devastating collapses of two of its last three key meetings.

Past WTO gatherings served as a battlefield for anti-globalization protests, but Hong Kong authorities managed to prevent violent clashes between police and activists from disrupting the talks. Dickering until the very last minute, delegates from both wealthy and poor countries reconciled their conflicting interests, agreeing to eliminate farm export subsidies by 2013, work toward dismantling trade barriers in manufacturing and services and to provide greater protections and support for developing countries.

"You put the round back on track. You gave it a new sense of urgency," a jubilant WTO chief Pascal Lamy told the delegates, many of whom had worked almost round-the-clock thrashing out their differences.

Developing nations felt the final agreement addressed many of their concerns, from opening up rich nations' farming markets to measures that could enable the world's poorest countries to increase their tiny share in global trade. "We welcome it," said India's Trade Minister Kamal Nath. "It is focused and it strikes at various problems of developing countries."

But the outcome of the six-day meeting left some disappointed, and puts pressure on the WTO if it hopes to conclude a binding global trade treaty by the end of next year.

"The agreement we have reached, if it didn't make the conference a success it certainly saved it from failure," said EU trade chief Peter Mandelson.

Pushing back the date for eliminating farm export subsidies to 2013 was a key demand of the 25-nation EU, which held out against intense pressure from Brazil and other developing nations to end the payments by 2010. Developing nations say the subsidies undercut their competitive advantage in farm trade and threaten the livelihood of their poor farmers.

The agreement approved by all the WTO's 149 member countries and territories also gives the world's poorest nations special trade privileges.

Wealthy nations committed to giving duty-free and quota-free privileges to at least 97 percent of products exported by the so-called least developed countries, countries with annual per capita incomes of US$750, by 2008. "That is something people have only dreamed of up until this time," said New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clark.

Clark said getting rid of export subsidies by 2013 is an advance, but said progress needs to continue.

"There's still the market access issue, and that's us getting our goods into other markets without high tariffs, and that's what's proving a bit tricky at the moment," she told TV One's breakfast program Monday.

French President Jacques Chirac welcomed the accord, saying Sunday that it favors global economic growth and jobs, but does not go far enough to help poor nations. France's farmers are among the top beneficiaries of EU agricultural subsidies.

The deal "will contribute to development of the poorest countries while still preserving the indispensable potential of European agriculture," according to a statement from Chirac's office. However, he added, "this progress on development still remains insufficient and must be followed up upon."

The agreement falls far short of the delegates' original ambition for Hong Kong: producing a detailed outline for a final trade treaty that would conclude the Doha round of talks, named after Qatar's capital, where it was launched in 2001 to particularly address the concerns of poorer nations, reports the AP. I.L.

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