WTO ministers reported modest headway in efforts to slash trade barriers and spur growth in poor countries at talks here yesterday as police and protesters clashed outside the meeting venue.
Police turned fire hoses and pepper spray on hundreds of demonstrators who tried to break through barricades blocking their path to the Hong Kong convention center, where the six-day WTO ministerial conference is due to end today.
Protesters hurled photographers' ladders and eggs at officers who tightened security around the venue on fears that violence would intensify as the meeting wound down.
After days of pessimistic forecasts on the outcome of the talks, delegates yesterday began to speak of some movement on steps to draft a multilataral accord to boost trade in farm produce, industrial goods and services.
"We have made some progress - much below what we had expected ... but we are making some headway," said Brazilian Trade Minister Celso Amorim.
Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said a draft ministerial statement released yesterday contained "lots of serious flaws ... (but) we hope those flaws will be corrected" in the coming hours.
It was unclear yesterday if significant movement on core disputes in agriculture trade, import tariffs and development initiatives for poor countries would emerge today.
"I think we will end up with some progress on some important issues on the development side and then we'll end up with some incremental progress on the core issues of the negotiations in (market access for industrial goods) and agriculture," US Trade Representative Rob Portman said.
A draft text sought to find common ground on the pace at which agricultural export subsidies in rich countries would be eliminated, an issue that has deeply divided the United States and the European Union.
Ministers from the 149-member World Trade Organization hope to wrap up the meeting with a statement paving the way to approval next year of a sweeping multilateral trade liberalization pact.
Poor countries have bristled at what they call excessive demands made on them to open their economies to manufactured goods and services in exchange for access to agricultural markets in the industrialized world.
Developing countries have also made clear their exasperation with what they say is a vague offer from developed nations to give about 50 of the world's poorest states duty-free and quota-free access for their exports.
West African cotton producers are meanwhile pressing the United States to eliminate the generous subsidies it pays to U.S. cotton growers, which they say depress world prices and keep them mired in poverty.
The draft text would see export subsidies for cotton in developed countries scrapped next year but the African response was dismissive.
"We are not happy. This is not what we were looking for, which was the elimination of domestic subsidies. On that, there is no date, nothing," said Francois Traore, head of the African Cotton Producers Association.
Among developed countries, the United States and the European Union are locked in a squabble over government support for farmers and import tariffs on agricultural produce.
The EU has come under intense pressure to offer deeper cuts but has steadfastly refused to change its position.
The EU has also refused to agree to a date by which export subsidies would be abolished on the grounds that the U.S. has not made an equivalent commitment on its export credits and food aid programs, which the EU sees as trade-distorting.