Global trade talks open in Kenya as Afghanistan and Liberia join WTO

NAIROBI (AFP) - War-torn Afghanistan and Ebola-ravaged Liberia are set to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) as it holds its first ministerial conference in Africa, opening on Tuesday (Dec 15) in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

"This conference will boost trade and investment, create employment and ultimately contribute to poverty eradication," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a welcome message, calling the meeting "historic and crucial." But he also stressed the need for African countries to diversify their economies.

"National, regional and multilateral policy choices that we make will matter," Kenyatta said. "The choices and positions we take will have consequences."

Security is tight for the conference, with some 6,000 delegates in Nairobi.

Kenya has been hit by a string of extremist attacks by Al-Qaeda's East Africa branch, the Somali-led Shebab, but last month hosted Pope Francis, while in July, US President Barack Obama visited.

The four-day Nairobi meeting comes two years after ministers from WTO member countries reached a landmark deal in Bali on overhauling global customs procedures.

The 2013 pact was the first multilateral agreement concluded by the WTO since its inception in 1995, and also the first concrete progress since the Doha Round of trade liberalisation talks began.

"We took 18 years to deliver our first multi-lateral agreement in Bali, that's way too long, we can't wait another 18 years to deliver again," WTO chief Roberto Azevedo told reporters on Tuesday.

But there are few signs that countries will be able build on the momentum gained in Bali to carve out even a limited deal in Nairobi.

"I think if we go out of Nairobi with renewed confidence and with a common vision for the future that will be a fundamental achievement," Azevedo said.

Insiders say negotiators will focus on trying to nail down a partial deal focused on agriculture export competition and trade development in the world's poorest nations, but admit the chances of succeeding are shaky at best.

"It will attempt to deliver on the elusive agreements of the Doha Development Agenda, and deal with controversies over agricultural subsidies and market access for developing countries," the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) think tank said.

"However, despite previous efforts, scant progress has been made and a breakthrough at Nairobi seems unlikely."

WTO deputy director David Shark was more upbeat, saying it was hoped that deals would be struck on agriculture, export subsidies and food security, and that there would be a debate on the nature of international trade.

"There is a very broad issue that members are discussing: how do we conduct trade negotiations in the future," he said.

"Do we continue in the same vein as we have under the umbrella of the Doha round? Or do we look for new and different ways? That is a very contentious issue amongst our members."

Ceremonies for the accession of Liberia are expected to be held on Wednesday (Dec 16), with the accession of Afghanistan a day later, the WTO said.

Liberia earlier this month released its last two known Ebola cases from hospital and started the countdown to being declared free of the virus for a third time. Afghanistan has been mired in conflict for decades.