Sunday, November 11, 2001

DOHA, Qatar The world’s trade ministers yesterday began the first new negotiations to dismantle international trade barriers in 15 years.
After intensive opening discussions on the second day of the World Trade Organization’s meeting, the group confronted many of the same disputes that torpedoed a disastrous 1999 meeting in Seattle. Negotiators were girding for particularly contentious disputes over agricultural trade before the scheduled end of the meeting on Tuesday.
The European Union is jousting with a group of countries, led by Australia, that is demanding the elimination of subsidies for agricultural exports, which they claim distort world trade.
The United States, eager for a deal that would help kick-start a struggling world economy, is hoping to broker a compromise between the two camps, which have assumed deeply entrenched positions and have shown little inclination to move.
“These are very, very firm positions still,” said Michael Moore, the director general of the 142-nation WTO, meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha.
By contrast, negotiations on clarifying international patent rules for lifesaving medicines for AIDS and other pandemics principally a question for the United States and Brazil appeared to be quite fluid, American and foreign officials said, suggesting an agreement is well within reach before the meeting ends.
Serious talks got under way as Qatari authorities, on guard for disturbances at a meeting that was almost moved in fear of terrorist attacks, ratcheted up security another notch. With guards already in every hallway and special American bodyguards accompanying U.S. officials, Qatari police yesterday sealed off to journalists and observers the entrance to the plenary room where ministers were meeting.
With opening formalities out of the way, most trade ministers turned their attention to the time-consuming task of wrangling over the precise wording for a declaration to guide negotiations over the next five years. Months of preparations at WTO headquarters in Geneva produced a draft text, but key WTO members have yet to reach agreement on the declaration to be issued Tuesday.
India, a longtime critic of WTO agreements, said it wanted to see a success in Doha but promised vigorous opposition to many of the demands raised by industrialized nations.
“We will withstand all pressures, any kind of pressures,” said Indian Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the top U.S. officials in Doha, mostly stayed out of sight yesterday as they turned their attention to the details.
The spat over agriculture centers on Europe’s refusal to accept any declaration that calls for the abolition of export subsidies for agricultural commodities, which total about $4 billion for Europe each year. Australia is leading a group that includes Canada, Brazil and Argentina in demanding a prohibition.
Though trade rules banned export subsidies for industrial products more than 50 years ago, European Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler said the 15 EU nations will not concede this point for the farm sector in Doha. “Agriculture cannot be treated like any other industry,” he said.
Standing behind Mr. Fischler is the French government, a vocal opponent of reforming Europe’s agricultural programs for decades. “No European would accept a text containing the notion,” said Laurent Fabius, the French finance minister.
The United States is urging both sides to accept the draft text that calls for negotiations “with a view toward phasing out” export subsidies, something both Europe and Australian so far have rejected outright, a U.S. official said. So far, no one has come forward with a compromise text, trade officials said.
The patent issue has emerged over the past few years as Brazil and many African countries have struggled to secure supplies of low-cost drugs to fight AIDS. The United States, home to many major pharmaceutical companies, has resisted Brazil’s demands that the trade ministers create an exception to WTO patent agreements for public health measure.
American negotiators fear that such a broad carve-out on patent rules would allow governments to wantonly ignore patents, which U.S. companies insist are crucial to encouraging the development of innovative pharmaceuticals in the first place. A senior U.S. official suggested the United States would seek a narrower exception, an idea that drew a positive reaction from Brazil.
“We are prepared to discuss limits, provided we have some wise proposals,” said Jose Serra, Brazil’s health minister.

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