Tension hovers as WTO ministers gather for critical trade session

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Ministers from 30 countries gather at Geneva to attempt to salvage the seven-year Doha Round.

21 July 2008

GENEVA - A crucial meeting on a global trade deal was on the starting blocks on Monday here where ministers from about 30 countries were assembling to salvage the seven-year Doha Round.

The atmosphere was clouded by recriminations over remarks by a Brazilian minister who had compared the negotiating tactics of rich countries to the methods of Nazi propaganda.

After nearly seven years of fruitless haggling, ministers will try to bridge gaps on trade-opening measures under the Doha Development Agenda, launched with great fanfare and hope in the Qatari capital in November 2001.

But an already difficult situation was not helped over the weekend when a Brazilian minister's reference to the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels sparked a row with Washington's representative.

Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, made the comment at a news conference on Saturday in response to claims by the industrialised countries that they had offered concessions on agricultural tariffs.

He said he was reminded of Goebbels' declaration that "If a lie is repeated enough times, it becomes the truth."

That prompted a sharp response from the office of US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

"At a time when we try to find a successful outcome to the negotiations, this kind of statement is highly unfortunate," her spokesman Sean Spicer said.

"For someone who is a foreign affairs minister, he should be aware of some sensitivities," he added.

Amorim's press office said he had "no intention of apologising".

His intention had not been to make comparisons between individuals, but "to show that propaganda can be superimposed on historical facts."

Developing countries have been pressing for lower farm subsidies and agricultural tariffs in the developed world.

Industrialised states are demanding in return that developing countries make their markets more accessible to imported services and manufactured goods.

The man with the job of squaring the circle this week will be WTO Director General Pascal Lamy of France.

He has argued that a Doha deal could inject between USD 50 billion (CHF 51.1 billion) and USD 100 billion (CHF 102.3 billion) each year to the world economy and be of enormous benefit to poor countries.

For the summit to be a success, the WTO's 152 members will have to agree on "modalities" - the key percentages for tariff cuts that would form the basis for any comprehensive deal.

The Geneva talks, under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, have added urgency.

All sides know that the United States will have a new administration and a new Congress next year. But no one can be sure what Washington's policy will be.

[AFP / Expatica]

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