WTO officials meeting in Geneva Tuesday agreed to hold its annual meeting in Qatar despite sharp criticism from human rights groups who argued that the conservative Gulf state would have no qualms about cracking down on protesters.
When the last World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference was held in the US city of Seattle in November 1999, anti-globalization protesters rampaged through the streets, seriously disrupting the meeting.
The WTO, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been a lightning rod for ecologists, labor organizers and human rights activists who accuse it of pursuing a globalization agenda that caters to big business while harming the lives of the poor and degrading the environment.
None of the representatives at the WTO meeting spoke out against the choice of Qatar but many emphasized that it should be open, echoing concerns from non-governmental groups that the Gulf monarchy will try to stifle dissent.
Visitors to the conservative Gulf Arab states need a visa backed by a local sponsor and must state a specific reason for their travel.
In Brussels, the European Commission said it fully supported the WTO decision to hold its next meeting in Qatar, adding that the Gulf state had given assurances that there would be "transparency for civil society" and that it was ready to accept the presence of non-governmental organizations.
"I think Qatar will try and accommodate everyone who has a genuine interest in participating, including NGO's," said the Pakistani ambassador to the UN and the WTO, Munir Akram. "I don't think there will be any difficulty. But of course one must understand that you cannot expect a country to accept people who have a record of anarchism or violence," he said.
In Doha, Qatari Finance and Trade Minister Yussef Hussein Kamal was quoted by a newspaper as saying that the government will allow peaceful demonstrations at the WTO meeting. "We will not prevent anybody from entering to demonstrate on condition that the demonstrations are peaceful. We will allow them to express their views in total freedom," Kamal said.
"We have started preparations to host the meeting," Kamal said, quoted in Al-Watan newspaper, during a conference on tourism at which plans to ease visas for visitors to Qatar were discussed.
The US-based Human Rights Watch warned this month that Doha was an inappropriate venue because of a ban on freedom of assembly in the Gulf monarchies. US trade unions last week joined the campaign against holding the WTO conference in Doha.
"Once again the cynical and arrogant WTO bureaucrats... think they can run and hide from the deep and abiding problems the WTO has created," said United Steelworkers of America (USWA) president George Becker.
The USWA was among 20 groups to sign a letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Trade Representative-designate Robert Zoellick asking them to oppose Qatar as the site.
The Doha conference is expected to take place November 5-9, ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which slows down life in the Gulf. WTO officials will set a definite meeting at the next session of the general council on February 8. — (AFP, Doha)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )