WTO concludes first global trade deal in 20 years but critics say it will boost big business at expense of developing nations
The first global trade deal since the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) nearly two decades ago has been condemned by anti-poverty groups as a boost for big business at the expense of developing nations.
After 12 years of talks, an agreement drafted by the WTO director general, Roberto Azevêdo, was signed in Bali by ministers from the body's 159 member countries on Friday after last-minute concessions to India over food subsidies.
Azevêdo shed tears during the summit's closing ceremony on Saturday as he thanked the host nation, Indonesia, and his wife.
"For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered" on large-scale negotiations, he said.
"This time the entire membership came together. We have put the 'world' back in World Trade Organisation," he said. "We're back in business … Bali is just the beginning."
An agreement with India, which has sought protection for its poorest farmers from US firms dumping surplus agricultural produce, was crucial to a comprehensive deal being struck at the meeting. The talks were also threatened at the 11th hour when Cuba objected to removal of a reference to the decades-long US trade embargo that Cuba wants lifted.
To head off a dispute, WTO members gave developing nations a temporary dispensation from subsidy limits, shelving the issue for negotiations at a later time.
At the heart of the agreement reached in Bali were measures to ease barriers to trade by reducing import duties, simplifying customs procedures and making those procedures more transparent to end years of corruption at ports and border controls.
Tense negotiations in recent weeks ahead of the meeting followed 20 years of bitter disputes as developing countries have attempted to protect their fledgling agricultural and industrial sectors while allowing them access to markets in the rich west.
The Doha round of talks, which began 12 years ago with high hopes of a deal, was considered to be dead as late as Thursday night by many delegates.
India, whose government faces the risk of losing elections next year, has said its tough stance drew support from developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America.
"We are trying to get justice for the poor people," Indian trade minister Anand Sharma said on the final day of the meeting.
India will implement a welfare programme next year to provide cheap food to 800 million people that would have contravened WTO rules curbing farm subsidies to 10% of production.
The programme, which relies on large-scale stockpiling and the offer to pay farmers a minimum price, is a central plank of the government's bid to win a third term.
Supporters of the WTO deal argue it will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the world economy. A report by the Peterson Institute in Washington argued it would add $960bn (£587bn) through extra trade and 20m extra jobs.
John Cridland, head of the Confederation of British Industry, said commitments to streamline customs procedures and cut red tape would help British exporters to move their products more efficiently around the world.
"With many British businesses looking further afield at new export markets, this deal is good news," he said..
"Now we need to see ambitious bilateral trade and investment agreements with the US and Japan to provide an additional boost to UK export performance over the long term."
But the World Development Movement (WDM) warned it was "an agreement for transnational corporations not the world's poor".
Nick Dearden, director of the WDM, said: "On the positive side, developing countries have forced concessions on to the pro-corporate agenda of the US and EU. However, those concessions are only the minimum necessary to get through what remains a deal for corporations, not for the world's poor.
"Here in Bali, social movements, trade unions and campaign groups have supported the efforts of developing countries to get a deal which moves the agenda away from a pro-corporate charter and towards something that asserts the rights and needs of the majority of the world's population," he said.
"The aggressive stance of the US and EU means that we have moved only a little, and shows again that the WTO can never be a forum for creating a just and equal global economic system."
Dearden said a succession of planned bilateral deals on a range of goods and services threatened the WTO and represented "the biggest shift of power from people to corporations that we have seen in 10 years" and must be "halted in their tracks."
The EU has recently begun talks with the Obama administration on a wide-ranging trade deal outside the confines of the WTO.
Critics of the deal also argued that the persistent disputes wrecked any chance of a far-reaching programme of reform.
"Beyond papering over a serious dispute on food security, precious little progress was made at Bali," said Simon Evenett, professor of international trade at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.
"Dealing with the fracas on food security sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the talks."
The WTO was formed in January 1995 after the Uruguay Round trade negotiations spanning 1986-94 were completed.