- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

GENEVA (AP) The new head of the World Trade Organization took office yesterday promising to help poor countries enjoy the benefits of global commerce and to defuse disputes before they become trade wars.
"Avenues are opening up for us to harness the process of globalization and help those who still lag behind to get on board," Supachai Panitchpakdi told reporters.
Mr. Supachai, 56, is a former Thai commerce minister and the first WTO director-general from a developing country. A soft-spoken economist with an interest in chess, his leadership is likely to come with a change of style from that of his predecessor, plain-speaking New Zealander Mike Moore.
Speaking after his first morning in the job, Mr. Supachai said one of his priorities would be to attempt to settle trade disputes at an early stage, before they become crises.
"We should be able to interpret the rules in a way that would help resolve conflicts," he said.
A WTO arbitrator said Friday that the European Union was entitled to apply more than $4 billion in trade sanctions against the United States in retaliation for tax breaks given to U.S. corporations operating abroad. The sanctions, if applied, would harm U.S.-EU relations.
At the same time, the European Union and half a dozen other countries have filed formal disputes with the WTO over an increase in U.S. tariffs on steel imports. Even disputes that have been virtually settled, such as the one over Europe's policy on importing bananas, dragged on for years, causing tension and distrust, before they were finished.
Mr. Supachai said he believed it was possible to settle many more disputes by mutual agreement early, rather than waiting for legal rulings, appeals and sanctions.
He has known for three years that he would be head of the WTO in 2002; he was appointed in 1999 as part of a power-sharing compromise after WTO members could not decide between him and Mr. Moore.
Mr. Moore, who took the first three-year slot, had no easy time of it. He was in charge during the collapsed meeting in riot-torn Seattle that was supposed to begin a round of trade-liberalization negotiations. He spent the next two years overseeing talks before the round was started in November in Doha, Qatar.
Mr. Supachai, in principle, should have the chance to cover himself in glory by presiding over the finalizing of the round, due by Jan. 1, 2005, but some observers are already expressing doubts that the 144-member WTO can meet that schedule.
He said he believed that the target could be reached.
"I hope and expect that countries will be able to make decisions sooner rather than later. I hope there will be enough flexibility at the end of the day to move to a successful conclusion by the end of the year 2004.
"I intend to be actively involved. I would like to emphasize that deadlines are important if we want to make this a successful and efficient round. We have no time to waste."
Though he just started in office, Mr. Supachai plans to travel this week to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where trade issues have come under much scrutiny. Many nongovernmental groups at the meeting blame the WTO for supporting big business at the expense of the poor and taking little notice of environmental issues.
"I fully realize that there are some strong criticisms, but I think instead of staying away it would be significant and beneficial I hope at least for myself to be involved in this debate," he said.


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