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Suicide sits heavy on trade negotiators
- Korean farmer’s death highlights how high stakes are at Cancun

Cancun, Sept. 11: A dramatic suicide by a Korean farmer overshadowed trade negotiations at Cancun where the fifth ministerial meeting began yesterday with World Trade Organisation director Supachai Panitchpakdi exhorting the 146 members to come up with a deal that would contain something for everyone.

Negotiators were stunned by the suicide of Kun Hai Lee at a demonstration about 5 km away from the conference hall.

Lee plunged a knife into his chest repeatedly in a stark act of protest that put pressure on the negotiators to come up with something on agriculture. Otherwise, they could see more acts of hara-kiri, even collective, to draw attention to the despair of peasants in developing nations.

Agriculture has divided the members broadly into two camps — the US and the European Union which pay huge subsidies to their farmers to keep them in business and developing nations which are seeking an end to these subsidies.

Negotiators now have to cherry-pick proposals on agriculture from at least three draft texts that have been placed on the table — by the WTO itself, the US-EU axis and the Group of 21.

Indian officials were clearly uneasy over the suicide. “This is tragic; it is a terrible way to drive the agenda of the WTO,” said an official shaking his head in dismay.

Later, the host Mexican government and the WTO secretariat expressed regret over the death to quell the raucous criticism that broke out soon after the inaugural session at the convention centre where several NGOs, including those from India, accused the world body of trying to “decide in three days the lives of over a billion farmers worldwide”.

Singapore trade minister George Yeo entreated developed countries “to rise above their domestic politics and be more generous to developing countries”.

Late on Wednesday night, a coalition of Korean farmers said they would march to the barricade between the convention centre and Cancun City, where they planned to spend the night, as a final action of protest against the WTO because the Mexican government has threatened them with deportation. Lee was a member of this group.

The WTO, which decided at the last ministerial meeting at Doha in November 2001 to act by explicit consensus — a two-year-old buzz phrase that incidentally could railroad all hopes of a substantive agreement here — today invited five “facilitators” to help conference chairperson and Mexican foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez keep the negotiations on track so that they have some deal to show at the end of four days of talks.

The facilitators for the five hot-potato subjects were Singapore’s George Yeo for agriculture; Hong Kong China’s financial secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen for non-agricultural market access; Kenya’s trade and industry minister Mukhisa Kituyi for development issues; Canada’s international trade minister Pierre Pettigrew for the Singapore issues and Guyana’s foreign trade minister Clement Rohee on a portmanteau of miscellaneous subjects.

The developing nations led by India and China, who formed a Group of 21 ahead of the Cancun talks to take up an aggressive posture on agriculture, formed another ginger group of 15 nations to thwart any attempt to widen the ambit of discussions on the so-called Singapore issues — investment, transparency in government procurement, competition policy and trade facilitation.

The new G-15 comprises India, China, South Africa, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Cuba and Jamaica.

This group believes that the discussion on the Singapore issues — a controversial set of subjects the developed world tried to smuggle into the WTO agenda at the Singapore ministerial meeting in December 1996 — has to “go through a clarificatory process before we can even begin discussions”, said commerce minister Arun Jaitley.

Another ginger group of 22 led by Indonesia has been formed to focus on the narrow subject of strategy products and special safeguards mechanism — which will authorise developing countries to adopt protectionist tariff measures in the event that domestic farmers face injury during periods of extremely low prices.

The move by the developing nations to cover all flanks on the agricultural front is clearly designed to frustrate the rich developed world from imposing its will on the way the rest of the world conducts trade.

“Our position is very close to the G-22 on agricultural issues, though they have chosen a narrow topic to focus on,” said Jaitley. “It will add a new dimension to the controversial subject of market access.”

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