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WTO talks end with Doha round still deadlocked

Ministers wrapped up a three-day meeting of the World Trade Organization on Saturday with no new direction in sight for the deadlocked Doha Round of negotiations for a global free trade pact.

Conference chairman and Nigerian Trade Minister Olusegun Aganga voiced his regret at the impasse, according to a draft copy of a statement due to be issued at the end of the day.

It calls on the WTO’s 153 member states to “more fully explore different negotiating approaches” and “intensify their efforts to look into ways” to overcome the stalemate.

Launched a decade ago in the Qatari capital, the Doha Round of negotiations has faltered, as developing and developed countries failed to bridge entrenched positions on cutting farm subsidies and lowering industrial tariffs.

With the talks at a standstill, ministers had arrived in Geneva knowing full well that their three-day meeting was not a negotiating session.

The main bright spot of the meeting was Russia’s accession to the world trade body this week after a record 18 years of negotiations.

Russia applied in 1993 but talks dragged on and its brief war with Georgia in 2008 further delayed its application as Tbilisi was able to veto Moscow’s application by virtue of its WTO membership of the WTO.

Besides Russia, the WTO on Saturday ushered in two other countries — Samoa and Montenegro — to its fold, although parliaments in all three nations must first ratify the move.

But beyond the expanding membership, there was little progress on the Doha Round.

EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht admitted at a press conference that WTO member states needed to “recognise that our credibility has been seriously damaged by our failure to get Doha off the ground”.

“We must make sure that 2012 does not become a ‘lost year’. I am ready to take the lead and I look to all my partners to join me,” he said.

Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said Beijing was open to “exploring new pathways and issues” but that members must not lose sight of the fact that the main principle of Doha was to lift countries out of poverty through trade.

“This is like mountain climbing, the summit is the Doha Round. But we’ve hit a roadblock on the way to the top, so we can either do a detour or we can find a new path.

Taiwanese economy minister Shih Yen-Shiang said there had been important developments at the meeting.

“The first important point is that ministers have reaffirmed their pledge to continue discussions in the Doha Round,” he told AFP.

“They have also pledged to resist protectionism. And third, Russia gaining membership to the organisation after 18 years of negotiations,” he said.

Nigeria’s Aganga said member states were leaving the Geneva talks with a more positive frame of mind after arriving in a pessimistic mood because of the stalling of the Doha process.

“But if you look at the mood, it has completely changed in the last two days. The message that we’re getting consistently from members is that the WTO is too important for all of us so we must ensure that we have a very strong, effective WTO,” he said.

As for Doha, “the ministers are taking responsibility and saying that we have to move it forward and make sure we get what we want by the next ministerial meeting,” he told AFP.

The WTO typically schedules a ministerial meeting every two years.