Thu, Jan 26, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The WTO is now an unwanted guest

AP , GENEVA

More than a month after December's WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong, which was supposed to decide on a venue for global commerce's next biennial jamboree in 2007, no city has yet volunteered to hold it.

The baggage associated with hosting such a meeting -- organizing and providing accommodation and security for thousands of delegates, journalists and campaigners -- is daunting enough.

That's before considering the possibility of the talks collapsing or violent protests -- as happened in both Seattle and Cancun, Mexico -- costing the host city financially as well as potentially tarnishing its image, as pictures of rioters fighting police beam around the globe.

"To do the last WTO meeting, it took us 18 months of preparation and cost us an incredible amount of resources," said Hong Kong Commerce Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology John Tsang (曾俊華). "This is not something you want to do every year."

Traditionally, a few names are considered before the WTO general counsel announces a host city for the meeting. The last two hosts, Hong Kong and Cancun, volunteered more than two years before the event. Hong Kong said it needed at least a year's advance notice of exact dates because it is was so complicated to organize the 10,000 attendees.

The last two host cities for WTO ministerials, Hong Kong and Cancun, volunteered more than two years before the event. Hong Kong said it needed at least a year's advance notice of exact dates because it is was so complicated to organize the 10,000 attendees.

So with the next full-blown ministerial likely to be in late 2007, the clock is already ticking.

"Who would want to host something where there's such a high chance of failure?" said Philippe de Pontet, an analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. "There's a lot of negatives."

In Hong Kong, more than 1,000 people were rounded up at the end of the meeting after an anti-globalization march turned into a riot, when hundreds of protesters broke through police lines and tried to storm the convention center where ministers were still negotiating.

A survey conducted by a Hong Kong research organization found that before the meeting, 57 percent of 500 residents asked believed the conference would benefit the territory. But afterward, that figure dropped to just 12 percent.

"Hong Kong people are not satisfied with the multi-millions of dollars being spent and the inconvenience caused, without there being a real return," said Chris Farquhar of Market Insights Group, which is based in Hong Kong.

Tsang estimated that it cost the territory more than HK$300 million (US$38.7 million) to host the event.

But WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell played down the significance of the trouble in Hong Kong, pointing out that it was less severe than at previous conferences.

"While this was nothing to sneeze at, it was certainly less than on previous occasions," Rockwell said.

The Seattle meeting in 1999 saw the worst trouble, when WTO talks collapsed following five days of anti-globalization riots that hurt the city's image and caused US$3 million in damage.

In Cancun, demonstrators battled with police and threw objects and even raw sewage in an attempt to crack a security perimeter around the meeting.

Officials say Singapore -- a WTO standby, where the commerce body had its first ministerial conference in 1996 -- could host the 2007 meeting.

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