Ministers from 149 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) gathered in Hong Kong on Tuesday afternoon to open the Sixth Ministerial Conference in a new bid to push forward the stalled Doha Round trade talks.
Addressing the opening session, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), Donald Tsang, said: "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance the existing international trading environment.
"It would become a key staging post to the successful conclusion of the multilateral trade negotiations under the Doha Development Agenda." Tsang also promised that Hong Kong was determined to make the meeting a success.
John Tsang, HKSAR trade chief and chairman of the Hong Kong meeting, said Hong Kong, as host of the long-awaited meeting, would serve as "a launching pad" for the final stage of negotiations and early success of the Doha Round.
He admitted that agriculture, notably reduction and elimination of farm subsidies, presented a challenge to the Doha Round.
However, he said, WTO "members agreed to take up this challenge and pressed on vigorously with the negotiations because we recognized the quickening pace of global interdependence."
This Hong Kong conference, attended by 5,800 delegates from 149 WTO members and 2,100 representatives from non-governmental organizations, will focus on the topics of the Doha Round, which aims to reduce farm subsidies and tariffs, liberalize service trade and provide economic aid to developing countries.
Launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, the Doha Round was caught in a deadlock over farm subsidies, which pitted rich against poor countries.
It was put back on track following a meeting in July 2004, at which WTO members agreed to phase out farm subsidies.
In his speech, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy advised all the delegates to be "more open-minded and bolder" in their negotiations so as to achieve satisfactory results.
"A popular Chinese proverb goes 'If you do not go into the cave of the tiger, how will you get its cub?'" Lamy said. "In other words: nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Lamy warned that repeating the long-known positions, using negotiators' language, refusing to understand the reasons of counterparts and avoiding any risks including political risks will only "get us nowhere."
He encouraged all WTO members to be open-minded, bold and courageous at the six-day conference to deal with the difficult and complex negotiations.
Echoing Lamy's warning, Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said the lack of major gains in Hong Kong would be a severe disappointment for poor people throughout the world.
"Development -- real gains in real peoples' lives -- remains the primary benchmark for success of the Doha Round," he said on behalf of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
He urged the European Union and G8 countries to set a clear, unambiguous date for ending trade-distorting subsidies and allowing access to their markets, especially in agriculture.
Amina Mohamed, chairwoman of the WTO General Council, urged WTO members to demonstrate resolve to push forward the Doha Round talks.
At the same time, more than 5,000 protesters from South Korea, Japan, India, the Philippines and some African and European countries staged a demonstration outside the Convention and Exhibition Center, the conference venue.
Some of them clashed with police as they tried to ram through a police roadblock.
This is the second anti-WTO demonstration this week, after thousands of anti-globalization and anti-WTO demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday.
(Xinhua News Agency December 14, 2005)