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BALI, Indonesia – A deal to boost global trade has been approved by the World Trade Organization's 159 member economies for the first time in nearly two decades, keeping alive the possibility that a broader agreement to create a level playing field for rich and poor countries can be reached in the future.
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo shed tears during the summit's closing ceremony Saturday as he thanked host nation Indonesia and his wife.
"For the first time in history, the WTO has finally delivered" on large scale negotiations, he said.
Trade ministers had come to the four-day WTO meeting on the resort island of Bali with little hope that an agreement would be reached.
The talks were threatened at the eleventh hour when Cuba objected to removal of a reference to the decades-long U.S. trade embargo that Cuba wants lifted.
India had also been an obstacle because of its vociferous objections to provisions that might endanger grain subsidies aimed at ensuring its poor get enough to eat. WTO members gave developing nations a temporary dispensation from subsidy limits, shelving the issue for negotiations at a later time.
The centerpiece of the agreement reached in Bali was measures to ease barriers to trade by simplifying customs procedures and making them more transparent.
The deal could boost global trade by $1 trillion over time and also keeps alive the WTO's broader Doha Round of trade negotiations, sometimes known as the development round because of sweeping changes in regulations, taxes and subsidies that would benefit low income countries.
"The WTO has re-established its credibility as an indispensable forum for trade negotiations. Nor is this a paper victory: Streamlining the passage of goods across borders by cutting red tape and bureaucracy could boost the world economy," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.
The idea behind the WTO is that if all countries play by the same trade rules, then all countries, rich or poor, will benefit.
But some critics say WTO rules may hinder countries from setting their own priorities in environmental protection, worker rights, food security and other areas. And they say sudden reductions in import tariffs can wipe out industries, causing job losses in rich and poor countries.
The WTO was formed in January 1995 after the Uruguay Round trade negotiations spanning 1986-1994 were completed. Apart from being a forum for world trade talks, the organization arbitrates trade disputes between member countries.