U.N. body eyes trade talks as recession fears grow

Original Publication Date: 
17 March, 2008

GENEVA, March 18 (Reuters) - Developing countries should push for a compromise deal in the six-year-old effort to revamp free trade rules and help restore the global economy's health, a United Nations official said on Tuesday.

Supachai Panitchpakdi, the former World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief who now heads the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said it was important to keep exports and imports flowing.

Economists fear a credit crisis in the United States could throw the world's largest economy into a recession and drag global growth down with it.

Protectionist policies cropping up in the form of "economic patriotism" or "neomercantilism" -- where governments seek to limit imports to protect domestic industries -- could hurt developing nations which depend upon exports to grow, he said.

"There are all kinds of new waves of protectionism that may be misconceived and misdirected," Supachai told a news briefing in Geneva, where UNCTAD is headquartered.

The former Thai deputy prime minister said that government officials ought to pledge their support to the WTO trade talks -- known as the Doha Round -- when they gather for an UNCTAD conference next month in Ghana.

"It is quite possible that the Doha negotiations might move into the final phase of the negotiation," Supachai said. "It might be a real opportunity to add to the push."

The WTO's 151 member governments have been at loggerheads over how to dismantle subsidies, tariffs and other barriers to trade in food, textiles, cars, telecommunications, and other agricultural and manufactured goods and services.

Developed economies such as the United States and European Union are seeking better treatment for their exported industrial products in return for cutting the benefits they offer farmers, which poorer country manufacturers say skew world prices for cotton and other goods.

Emerging countries have also chafed at the idea of exposing their fledgling industrial sectors to more competition from big Western companies, as well as from fast-growing Chinese firms.

WTO members need to reach consensus on all aspects of the Doha Round -- which would build upon the last global free trade accord known as the Uruguay Round, signed in 1994 -- for the pact to be accepted.

Supachai did not say where compromise may lie in the ongoing negotiations at the WTO's Geneva headquarters.

But he said the more than 100 ministers meeting in Accra may be able to make headway on certain issues, including special treatment for poor-country goods and "aid for trade" to help poorer nations take advantage of new export opportunities.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 delegates are expected at the April 20-25 UNCTAD conference, which takes place every four years. UNCTAD conducts research, provides developing countries with technical assistance and sets up high-level discussions between governments and experts. (Editing by Matthew Jones)