12/13/2005, 00.00
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Clashes and protests at World Trade Organisation summit

Rich countries and developing countries are poles apart. The poor countries are calling for the elimination of protectionist policies and warn that their peasants are dying of hunger. There are thousands of protesters on the streets, and clashes with police.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The sixth meeting of the World Trade Organisation kicked off today in Hong Kong. The gathering promises to be decisive for trade liberalization. In the difficult search for a compromise, the interests of rich and poor countries clash.

Thousands of people lined the streets with slogans, chants and banging drums. Some unveiled a banner reading "No deal is better than a bad deal". Farmers from different countries – including more than 1,200 from South Korea – bore red headbands with "Down with WTO" written on them. They tried to get round police to reach the congress zone, and many threw themselves into the water to try to swim to the meeting place in Wan Chai.

At the 2001 Doha meeting, member states committed themselves to knocking down obstacles to free trade, like tariffs on overseas products, bans on imports and limited quotas, and subsidies in favour of national products. Poorer states, led by India and Brazil, are urging rich countries (especially the United States and the European Union) to lower their import tariffs especially in the agricultural sector and to stop giving subsidies to their farmers. Only then will they be ready to concede full entry into their markets for overseas products and services like banking and telecommunication, much sought after by the USA and the EU.  All along, there is the fear that industrialised countries are pursing corporate policies.

The positions taken by the 149 member states are poles apart. The United States proposed removing all export subsidies from 2010, but the Trade Ministry of Benin, Massiatou Latoundji Lauriano, replied that "by 2010 our peasants could die". Peter Mandelson, EU Trade Commissioner, has already said that even if "we do not reach as far as we hoped, it will not be a disaster" and he reiterated that the farming question should not be the only focus.  US representative, Robert Portman, said the talks had been stalled for four years and a decision needed to be reached.

Another impasse, said WTO head Pascal Lamy, could be dangerous for the credibility of the WTO and it could lead to a search for bilateral or regional agreements. Many observers are expecting, at most, accords in sectors of textile products and low-cost drugs, where multi-lateral agreements already exist.

Trade liberalization, says the World Bank, would bring advantages to the local economy with more trade for 300 billion US dollars per year. It would also be a big help for 140 million poor people (who live off less than two dollars a day), especially in countries like China and Brazil.

Even countries in Southeast Asia, who garner 18% of the total export market, would benefit from liberalisation.

The full opening of markets would also help development countries to adapt their market to the global one. Only thus, say many experts, will they be able to reduce underpaid workloads and the massive migration of unqualified workers from one state to another.

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