Qatar is set to host the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization later this year after the only other country to have expressed an interest withdrew its offer, trade sources said on Tuesday.
None of the WTO's 140 members objected during a meeting Tuesday in Geneva to the offer for Doha to stage the next conference, which will come two years after a protest-marred Seattle meeting.
Protestors rampaged through the streets of the US city in November 1999, disrupting the WTO ministerial conference, which also failed to agree on an agenda for a new round of trade liberalization talks.
Qatar has assured the World Trade Organization of a successful WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, a choice of venue criticized by the US-based Human Rights Watch, reports said Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued Saturday, warned that Doha was an inappropriate venue because of a ban on freedom of assembly in the Gulf states. "The WTO can't avoid public protests by holding a meeting in a country that doesn't allow public protest," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the organization.
"That would send the signal that it's okay to build the global economy on a foundation of repression. Instead of addressing protesters' concerns, the only thing the WTO seems to have learned is to hold meetings in countries that ban public protests altogether," said Roth.
He said that either Qatar must pledge that free assembly will be respected or the WTO ministers should find another location. "Qatar's human rights record is blemished," Human Rights Watch charged, citing US State Department reports. But it acknowledged the high level of freedom granted to the Qatar-based Arabic satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera.
A senior Qatari official, contacted by AFP, rejected the criticism, insisting that demonstrations were not banned in Qatar so long as they had prior clearance from the authorities. In October, anti-Israeli protests were staged in Qatar and other Gulf states, a rare event in the Gulf.
Qatar University's dean, Abdulhamid Al-Ansaari, meanwhile, said: "The holding of the WTO conference can only consolidate the political opening," underway in Qatar. He pointed to the government's plans to draw up a permanent constitution and embark on elections to parliament.
Chile had expressed an interest in offering Santiago as a host for the meeting, but told WTO delegates here it was giving up on the idea because of a number of international meets already taking place in the city and elections this year, the sources said.
The Doha ministerial conference is expected to take place November 5-9, ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which slows down life in the conservative Gulf Arab petro-monarchies.
"We will grant all member countries all the necessary facilities for the success of this important meeting," Sheikh Fahd said, quoted in the newspapers. A WTO technical committee would visit Doha in coming weeks to make arrangements, he added. WTO members are expected officially to accept Qatar's proposal at a January 30 meeting.
The tiny peninsula state has a population of around 600,000 citizens, more than four-fifths of them expatriate workers. It sits on the world's third largest gas reserves and is known as a political independent in the region.
Visitors to Qatar, like other Gulf states, need a visa backed by a local sponsor, and must state a specific reason given for traveling to the emirate. It is highly unlikely that would-be protesters could enter the country.
The largest international events hosted by Qatar have been an Islamic summit in November 2000 and a US-brokered Middle East economic conference in 1997, although the latter was boycotted by most Arab states in protest at Israel's participation.
Qatar, which had to mobilize boats to lodge an overflow of delegates at the Arab-Israeli conference due to a shortage of accommodation, has also been chosen to stage the 2006 Asian Games. — (AFP, Geneva, Doha)
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