Ministers urged to back WTO overhaul

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Seven of Britain's largest aid and environmental charities have accused ministers of ignoring the world's poorest and weakest nations by failing to overhaul the World Trade Organisation.

In a joint letter leaked to The Independent on Sunday, the seven charities, including Christian Aid and the World Development Movement, have urged the Cabinet ministers Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Beckett to support calls for radical reform of the powerful trade body.

The two ministers are leading the UK's delegation to the WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 10 days' time, where world leaders will agree further global trade liberalisation deals on issues such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals.Cancun is braced for mass protests after the last WTO meeting in Seattle saw battles between anti-globalisation protesters and police.

Yesterday, the WTO finally agreed a deal on cheap medicines, notably Aids drugs for Africa, after a last-minute crisis over Western demands for tougher legal action against smuggling.

The charities warn that crucial WTO decisions are taken in secret or informal meetings that exclude most of its 146 members, particularly poorer states.

"There is serious cause to consider any substantive outcome of the WTO as illegitimate and unjust on the grounds that negotiations fail to be conducted in a democratic, transparent and accountable way," they said.

However, the Government rejects their complaints and insists the UK, with the European Union, has played a significant role in bolstering the rights of poorer nations within the WTO.