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Foreign Trade

WTO approves global trade pact after overnight delay

World Trade Organization members have approved a global deal designed to lower barriers to trade. WTO chief Roberto Azevedo called the move an "important step" towards the more ambitious "Doha Round" free trade talks.

WTO seals global trade deal

The World Trade Organization (WTO) on Saturday reached its first major deal to lower barriers to international trade to a roar of approval from delegates at a conference on the Indonesian island of Bali. The breakthrough followed years of failed attempts to secure the required unanimous agreement from its 159 memebers.

"For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered," WTO chief Roberto Azevedo, who took up the post on September 1 this year, told delegates at the conference in Nusa Dua.

"This time the entire membership came together. We have put the 'world' back in World Trade Organization," he said.

The deal would lower some trade barriers and reduce the time goods take to clear customs, but falls far short of the more ambitious global free-trade deal championed by the WTO ever since the 2001 Doha Round of talks. Nevertheless, Azevedo said Saturday's agreement was an "important step" towards realizing the WTO's greater goal.

The agreement might also help dispel a perception that the WTO was suffering from inertia, having failed to secure unanimous approval for a global trade deal since its foundation in 1995. The prevalence of regional free trade agreements, for instance in the EU, had prompted questions on the WTO's relevance as a dealbreaker.

Late scare on Cuban question

The agreement followed a last-gasp threat from Cuba and three other Latin American countries to vote against the deal on Friday, pushing the talks past schedule and into the weekend.

Cuba, with support from Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua, opposed the draft text because its language did not challenge the longstanding US embargo against Cuba.

"We need to continue our consultatons and find a way to overcome this problem," World Trade Organization (WTO) spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters, saying that the four countries, "were unhappy with the removal of the reference to the embargo, it was a very political statement, which expressed certain ideological elements."

Diplomats said on Saturday that Cuba had dropped its objection on the issue.

Indian agreement

Hopes of a deal in Bali were first raised when India, after a lengthy period of objection, indicated it was prepared to support the deal. India's desire to safeguard and stockpile low-price grain for its poor had met resistance from other countries, concerned that some of the food might find its way onto global markets and affect prices.

"It is a victory for the WTO and for the global community to have arrived at a mature decision," Indian Trade Minister Anand Sharma told reporters. "We are more than happy. It is a great day. It is a historic day."

The compromise wording appeared to allow India and other developing countries to guarantee grain prices, but without specifying a time period for the practice and only on the condition that none was sold abroad.

msh/ch (AFP, Reuters)

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