WORLD TRADE TALKS: Protesters waging war against the poor, says Short

WORLD TRADE TALKS Minister defends WTO's `precious international' position while the first hint of a campaign of sabotage emerges in Seattle
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The Independent Online
CLARE SHORT has attacked lobby groups which want to destroy the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or disrupt its Seattle meeting, saying that they are acting against the interests of developing countries.

One of the subjects to be discussed is the use of global labour standards to protect jobs in developed nations, an issue which seems likely to be among the most divisive. But Ms Short, Secretary of State for International Development, said that these had no role in trade policy. "Many organisations that claim to be speaking for developed countries are adopting positions that are against the interests of developing countries," she said in Seattle, where the WTO is holding its ministerial meeting. She called the WTO "a precious international institution".

"Everybody agrees that we want to see an end to child labour," said Ms Short. "But the suggestion that trade sanctions should be used to secure these things would simply mean marginalising the poor countries for their poverty."

In a speech scheduled to be delivered later yesterday, she added that "those who make blanket criticisms of the WTO are working against, not for, the interests of the poor and powerless".

The WTO ministers are meeting to produce an agenda for a three-year negotiating round that will rewrite global trade rules. But many groups are lobbying the summit, and some plan to disrupt its proceedings. They argue that the WTO is a tool of Western capitalist oppression which prevents countries from protecting their environment, undermines sovereignty and fails to safeguard jobs.

One of the most divisive issues is the introduction of new rules to make sure all countries adhere to Western-style codes of labour protection. Unions will lead massive protests today aimed at buttressing workers' rights through the WTO, an idea backed by the United States and most of the protesting groups but opposed by most developing nations. Without this, America may find it hard to support a WTO agreement; with it, many developing countries will oppose a deal.

"The current system of global trade and investment rules has failed miserably on many counts," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, America's umbrella union body in Seattle on Sunday. "It has weakened the bargaining power of workers all over the world, has undermined legitimate national regulations designed to protect the environment and public health, and has exacerbated financial instability and growing inequality worldwide."

Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and a former British trade union leader, said: "If the ministers fail to act on what is an unmistakable demand from the world's peoples, they could well this week have set in train the beginning of the end of the WTO.

Mike Moore, director-general of the WTO, attacked the "bitterness and divisiveness of the current trade and labour debate," saying it was "destructive and confusing".

"Imposing trade sanctions - making developing countries even poorer - will not stop children being put to work. Or lift the living standards of their families. Just the opposite. Poverty, not trade, is the main cause of unacceptable working conditions and environmental degradation. And the answer to poverty is more trade and business, not less," he said.

Negotiations on the WTO round start today, with agriculture, labour standards and protection of the environment likely to be the trickiest issues, said Stephen Byers, Britain's Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. "There's a big divide" between the "very hard" position of the US on labour standards and other nations, he said. The EU supports a more moderate stance on labour protection.

The EU will be under heavy pressure to agree to further deep cuts in its support for farmers and farm exports at the conference, but it says it has flexibility in its position. "The EU is ready to negotiate on agriculture," said Pascal Lamy, the EU's trade commissioner. But he said Europe will oppose plans to treat agriculture like any other trade sector, arguing that "producing food is not like producing other goods".