Riots outside, discord inside WTO as members try to reach global deal
HONG KONG – Protesters opposed to lowering trade barriers swung bamboo sticks at police Saturday and tried to storm a convention center where World Trade Organization delegates were negotiating a global accord on farming, manufacturing and services. At least 70 people were injured.Negotiators met overnight into Sunday trying to overcome differences on a draft text, but failed to agree on a deadline to eliminate agricultural export subsidies. India’s trade minister, Kamal Nath, said a deal had been reached, but he was swiftly contradicted by a spokesman for the European Union trade commissioner.On Saturday, security forces scattered the crowd of protesters with tear gas and pepper spray, and 900 people were detained after the worst street violence in Hong Kong in decades. The injured included 10 police officers.The protesters included South Korean farmers, Southeast Asian groups and activists from the United States and Europe. They are concerned that WTO efforts to open up global markets will enrich wealthy nations at the expense of poor and developing countries.By early Sunday, police ordered demonstrators staging a sit-in on a major road near the site to disperse and began dragging them away and loading them in buses.Leading delegates met into Sunday in hopes of reaching an agreement on a text that showed only incremental progress after nearly a week of largely fruitless talks on how to reduce trade barriers in services, manufacturing and farming. The talks focused on the contentious proposal to end export subsidies by 2010 – an issue that could make or break the entire gathering.”Today is the day,” Fernando de Mateo y Venturini, Mexico’s ambassador to the WTO, said early Sunday. “At least I hope there is going to be a result. That’s my expectation.”The U.S. trade representative, Rob Portman, said negotiators were close to a deal, reporting modest progress on market opening measures for farm and manufactured goods and services.”The expectations were relatively low for Hong Kong but I think we’re making some incremental progress,” he said.Venturini said delegates discussed possibly pushing the date to end export subsidies back to 2013, and Nath said that proposal would be acceptable to India, one of the leading developing nations and a key player in the rules-setting World Trade Organization.The Hong Kong meeting was originally meant to produce a detailed outline for a global free trade agreement by Dec. 31, 2006. However, the European Union is refusing to open its agricultural markets any further until developing nations offer to lower their trade barriers to industrial goods and services.”Europe made a major effort to save these talks,” Peter Power, spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said Sunday. “However the goal posts moved at the last moment. There’s no deal at the moment.”Outside the convention center on Saturday, police fired tear gas to quell hundreds of rioters, some wearing helmets and covering their faces with kerchiefs to ease the effects of the tear gas. Demonstrators bashed police with bamboo poles and used a metal barrier to ram a line of police armed with riot shields.At one point, activists broke through police lines and came close to storming the WTO’s harbor-side meeting venue. The police fought back with clubs, pepper spray and water cannons that sprayed a chemical mixture that burned the skin and eyes.”The use of tear gas was too violent,” said Elizabeth Tang of the Hong Kong People’s Alliance on WTO. “Police knew lots of citizen onlookers and press were there and they didn’t give any warnings beforehand.”Chief WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said the violence did not affect the delegates’ work.Developing nations have been pushing for the elimination of European subsidies for exports, saying they undercut their farmers. But the EU has refused to specify a date for ending those subsidies.In a victory for West African cotton growers, the draft calls for rich nations to end export subsidies for cotton in 2006. This represents a U.S. concession to African claims that government support for farmers in rich countries is driving many poor farmers out of work.”The cotton industry would be very, very concerned about that proposal, and I’m confident I’ve just given you the understatement of the afternoon,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said.After trade deal talks collapsed at previous summits in Cancun, Mexico, and Seattle, the WTO’s credibility would be dealt a serious blow if negotiators cannot reach an agreement here.”There will be a heavy responsibility on anyone who lets this chance slip away,” Rockwell quoted WTO chief Pascal Lamy as telling delegates.