Column : Ministerial without an agenda

Written by Rituparna Bhuyan | Updated: Dec 2 2009, 03:10am hrs
In 2005, when the WTO last held a full-scale ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, everyone from trade experts to trade union leaders termed it the years most important event. The island city state saw unprecedented curfew scenes, thanks to a motley crew of protesters, including Korean rice farmers. The stakes were high.

Cut to Monday, when trade ministers from all 153 WTO member nations began the first such meeting after Hong Kong. Though mild violence was reported from Geneva by anti-globalisation protesters, this WTO meeting is far from being the cynosure of the worlds eyes. The reason is rather ludicrousnegotiations on the Doha Round of Development, hanging fire since 2001, have been kept off the agenda. So instead of taking global trade forward, ministers will twiddle their thumbs over house keeping issuesdiscuss and analyse the full spectrum of its activities, election of office bearers, setting the date and venue of the next such meeting, etc. Ostensibly, the idea seems to be climate-friendlywhy create paper when no one is in a mood to sign on the dotted line.

But thats precisely why New Delhi had hosted an informal meeting of key trade interlocutors this September as negotiators had virtually stopped talking since the last failed meeting in July 2008, when developing countries resisted pressure from rich nations to relax safeguards proposed for their farmers. After the financial crisis struck, heads of state at G-20 meetings underlined their commitment for a speedy conclusion of the Doha Round, while the G8 summit at LAquila went a step further and resolved to conclude the Round by 2010.

Words and joint communiqus are one thing, getting 153 members with differing interests to agree on liberalising global trade further amidst what could be a shaky recovery is a tall order. More so, because key players like the EU are set to change their negotiators soon, while the Obama administration is yet to appoint an ambassador to WTO. For the WTO, already reeling from a crisis of confidence, a failed summit would be disastrous. So it has chosen a frictionless agenda before it goes into a winter recess.