DOHA, Qatar, Nov. 9 — The World Trade Organization’s top official opened the group’s meeting here today with a warning that failure to reach agreement on new trade talks would risk grave damage to the global economy.
Amid massive security preparations and protests by a handful of anti-globalization activists, Michael Moore, the WTO director-general, voiced optimism that trade ministers from the organization’s 142 member countries would strike an accord on an agenda for multiyear negotiations aimed at lowering trade barriers worldwide.
Moore admonished against a repetition of the WTO’s tumultuous meeting two years ago in Seattle, which ended without an agreement to launch new trade talks. With the dangers of a full-scale world recession mounting, averting a downturn "depends very much on the factor of confidence — among other things confidence that governments will not give way to the temptation of protectionism," he said in an address to the opening session of the conference. "The state of the economy and the threat of protectionism demand a clear commitment by governments to sustain and strengthen the international trading system and resolve their differences by negotiation."
The speech reflected the somber mood at the meeting, where delegates are struggling to resolve a host of differences over the next five days, the most contentious involving complaints by poor countries that the current rules of global trade favor the rich. Developing nations are particularly insistent that the international system governing drug patents be loosened to allow easier access to cheap medicine. In addition, they are demanding that wealthy countries start negotiating on the elimination of high tariffs and subsidies that protect producers of goods such as agricultural products and clothing in which poor nations are most competitive.
Also casting a pall over the meeting in this Persian Gulf emirate were the extraordinary procedures aimed at ensuring the personal safety of the attendees, who include some 2,600 official delegates, 800 journalists and 400 representatives of businesses and non-governmental organizations.
A perimeter guarded by machine-gun-toting Qatari police and military personnel protected miles of roads surrounding the conference center, ensuring that anyone without credentials issued in advance was denied entry. In hotels, Qatari security officials wearing traditional white robes and headdresses manned metal detectors and patrolled the halls.
Underscoring fears among U.S. officials that they presented a tempting target for terrorists, security was particularly tight at the hotel housing the American delegation, which is headed by Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.
The circumstances were in stark contrast with the "Battle of Seattle," where tens of thousands of protesters disrupted the meeting and a few hundred anarchists trashed shops and businesses. Although similar, smaller-scale protests were held this week in several cities around the world, including Washington, to coincide with the WTO meeting, the gathering here was hardly conducive to such activity.
For starters, because of limited hotel space here, the WTO has allowed only one representative each from non-governmental organizations such as labor unions, environmental groups and others critical of free trade.
Then there are Qatar’s laws, which representatives of American non-governmental organizations were cautioned to observe at a private briefing given by U.S. officials, according to one attendee. Among the laws that were highlighted, this source said, was one that forbids insulting the emir, and another that prohibits "shaming the state."
Violators can be sentenced to more than three years in Qatar’s prisons, which though air-conditioned are not pleasant, the attendees were told.
"We’re not in Seattle anymore," said Lisa Hoyos, an activist who works with a South African labor group, as she surveyed the desks and tables in the special area designated for non-governmental organizations within the conference complex. "Here you have computers, people in suits… You don’t have the organic social movement that we had in Seattle."
Even so, a few dozen activists chanted and waved small, hastily printed placards accusing the WTO of being antidemocratic and biased in favor of the rich, as official delegates filed into the opening session.
"The Qatari government promised to respect peaceful demonstrations, and we really respect them for giving us that opportunity," said Walden Bello, a leading anti-globalization activist who was waving a placard.
Other groups were scornful of the protests and refused to take part.
"We have good access," said Peter Coldrick, an official of the European Trade Union Confederation. "If officials from the WTO and so forth were refusing to talk to us, that would be different, but they’re not. We came here to work on our issues from the inside." WTO officials vigorously disputed assertions by some activists that the most powerful countries were planning to hold exclusive meetings this weekend where they would forge an accord that would be presented to the smaller, poorer nations as a fait accompli — a practice associated with global trade negotiations in years past.
To the contrary, six trade ministers — from Mexico, Canada, Singapore, South Africa, Chile and Switzerland — will chair committees on the most difficult unresolved issues, and any minister can join any committee, trade officials said this evening.
Still, in a sign of the prevailing discord, WTO officials are generally refraining from describing their goal of multiyear negotiations as a trade "round," because many poor countries believe they got a raw deal in the Uruguay Round, which was completed in 1994. Instead, they are using the term "extended work program" to describe the process that they hope to launch.
"It’s true, the term ’round’ is sensitive to some folks, and ‘work program’ sounds bureaucratic and dull," Keith Rockwell, the WTO’s chief spokesman, told reporters. "Well, c’est la vie."