By  on January 18, 2005

GENEVA — The chief of the World Trade Organization told member countries last week that their governments should offer better market-access terms to help tsunami-stricken countries.

“The WTO shares a responsibility to assist recovery from the disaster,” Supachai Panitchpakdi, WTO director general, wrote in a letter to member governments.

He urged all members “to reflect deeply and expeditiously on whether there is anything they can do at this moment in terms of their trade policy to help.” Panitchpakdi acknowledged that ultimately the decision “is a matter for individual governments.”

The initial reactions of envoys and trade experts appeared favorable.

A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative said, “We have been in active consultations with trade ministries from tsunami-affected countries, along with our domestic stakeholders, discussing possible ways to help facilitate reconstruction efforts.”

It is likely that U.S. textile concerns would oppose further trade breaks so close in time to the lifting of worldwide quotas this month.  

“It’s something that has to be done,’’ said a WTO ambassador from an apparel-exporting developing country not affected by the waves. “What happened is terrible.”

Humanitarian groups said Supachai’s message was positive.

“We think it’s a good idea,” said Amy Barry, trade specialist with the advocacy group Oxfam International. “Any flexibility that’s possible to give them to help them get back on their feet should be looked into.”

On Friday, the death toll from the disaster was more than 157,000 people in 11 countries. Several of the nations hit hardest — particularly Sri Lanka and Indonesia — depend heavily on garment exports.

The European Union last week said it was reviewing ways to extend trade relief to countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and India.

One sticking point in any trade packages will likely be rules of origin.

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