- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

GENEVA (Agence France-Presse) — World leaders must show more commitment to the World Trade Organization and hold a summit every five years to bolster support for the body, a panel set up to examine the WTO’s future said yesterday.

The consultative board, led by former WTO Director-General Peter Sutherland, said in a report that the often criticized global free trade body needed “more intensive political involvement.”

“Institutions can fail … through neglect,” Mr. Sutherland warned in the report by the panel of eight leading economists, trade experts and officials.

Mr. Sutherland, who is also a former European Union trade commissioner, said the rules-based free trade system governed by the WTO’s 148 member states was an essential building block in global economic affairs.

“It will be increasingly apparent that to undo or resile from this system will carry a significant price,” he added.

The report said: “A summit of world leaders should be held in the WTO every five years,” in order to “reinforce commitment to the multilateral trading system.”

After the failure of high-profile WTO ministerial meetings in Seattle in 1999, and in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, which were meant to spur the expansion of the free trade system, meetings of trade ministers should be held annually instead of every two years, the report said.

The panel also advocated the formation of a rotating core group of up to 30 nations in the WTO that would regularly work to set the political direction for the negotiations on expanding trade liberalization.

“Work in Geneva is, necessarily, tight focused and not always clearly related to the large scale political, economic and development issues with which governments must deal with domestically,” the report noted.

The 148 member states struggled through last year to put the current round of deadlocked global trade talks, which were started in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, back on track.

Despite fears that the WTO’s consensus rule — all agreements require unanimity — was encouraging deadlock as the organization’s membership expands, the panel stood by the system.

The panel suggested that any single country blocking a decision should be obliged to certify that it is doing so because of a “vital” matter of national interest.

Mr. Sutherland, who has moved to the private sector as chairman of the oil group BP Amoco PLC and the bank Goldman Sachs, said negotiators were often left without clear instructions from their governments while deadlines for agreements loomed.

“If that persists, it will automatically lead to a derailment of the major negotiations,” he said.

“It’s not working; it’s not working effectively and we all know that.

“We drift along up to the last minute and then suddenly things start to happen.”

Although rich and poor nations appeared to overcome their recent debilitating rift at a meeting in Geneva last summer, global trade talks focusing on new measures to help developing countries have only resumed slowly.

The report warned that if the poorest countries “do not receive real benefit from membership, there can be little point in their remaining part of the organization and the moral case for the WTO as a source of good is diminished.”

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