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Agendas Clash As Trade Talks Begin

Throughout the week, WTO members have been trying to hammer out what would be the scope of a new round of trade liberalization talks. So far, delegates have made little headway on topics such as cutting farm subsidies, trade retaliation laws and anti-dumping regulations.

At issue today, the final day for the Seattle conference, is the United States’ insistance that setting minimum labor standards be an important part of the organization’s agenda.

Discussions on the issue have become so heated that many developing countries have said they will refuse to sign the trade liberalization deal WTO delegates are working toward today.

India has said it will reject plans by the U.S. and the European Union for study groups on minimum labor standards.

“We are totally opposed to it and have no intention of yeilding,” Shipra Biswas, joint secretary of information at India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry told Reuters.

Delegates from developing countries have said they felt shut out of the talks by their more wealthy counterparts. A joint statement issued by Latin American and Caribbean countries today said they will not ratify any agreements reached at the summit until they are allowed a voice in the proceedings.

“As long as due respect to the procedures and conditions of transparency…do not exist, we will not join the consensus to meet the objectives of this ministerial conference,” the statement said.

African countries issued a similar statement on Thursday.

“There is no transparency in the porceedings and African countries are being marginalized and generally excluded on issues of vital importance,” the group said.

Many have said that President Clinton’s strongly-worded call for labor standards Thursday only underscored the bitter divide on the topic.

Robert Litan, director of economics at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post that Clinton “has opened up a deep, deep rift with the developing countries.”

“It seems to be a hasty capitulation to domestic political concerns,” he said. “…It will make it more difficult to get agreement.”

Clinton’s comments came after he signed an International Labor Organization treaty aimed at outlawing slavery and prostitution of children, as well as other forms of child labor. The ILO, an arm of the United Nations, approved the treaty unanimously in June.

The president left Seattle yesterday under heavy guard as anti-WTO protests continued.

Seattle was calmer last night for the first time in days, although measures such as the 50-block downtown security zone continued. A few thousand protesters marched to a Seattle jail last night, demanding the release of hundreds of activists. Most of the protesters dispersed after city officials agreed to let the activists see lawyers. No confrontations erupted later when about 100 protesters gathered outside a theater.

The peaceful resolution of such standoffs contrasted with clashes earlier this week when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators and radical activists smashed store windows and sprayed graffiti.

The city’s mayor and police chief say the city has had to walk a fine line between allowing free expression and protecting public safety.

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