Question mark hangs over World Trade Organisation

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As trade ministers from its member countries meet in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, questions are being asked about the future and continuing validity of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The WTO celebrated its 20th anniversary this year and the Nairobi gathering marks its 10th ministerial conference. However, for much of its lifespan progress in negotiations has been hampered by disagreements between developed and developing countries.

The impasse goes back to 2001 and what is known as the Doha round of talks. The US has said that in view of the lack of progress over the 14 years since those talks were held in the Qatari capital, further negotiations should be abandoned as those talks were due to be completed at the start of 2005. Few expect this week’s latest round of talks to result in any major breakthrough.

There could, however, be more limited deals achieved, including the removal of tariffs on trade in various technology goods and an improvement in the export opportunities for the poorest nations through the removal of quota restrictions and tariffs.

The WTO was originally established as the main forum for trade rules and for negotiating the removal of barriers to international commerce. Its achievements have mainly been limited to the trade facilitation agreement, under which members pledged to improve custom procedures.

To date, the organisation has failed in its wider ambitions of reducing tariffs, farm subsidies and other trade barriers. It has been further undermined by the many trade and investment deals concluded outside the WTO over the period by individual countries and regions.

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