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DEVELOPMENT: Trade Agreements, Darfur in the Spotlight at ACP Gathering

Noel King

KHARTOUM, Dec 7 2006 (IPS) - The fifth summit of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States is taking place under the theme ‘United for Peace, Solidarity and Sustainability’; however, negotiations at the meeting may have a somewhat less harmonious tone.

The 79-nation body, formed in 1975 to improve co-operation between member countries and the European Union (EU), is currently grappling with the thorny issue of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) – accords which have to be in place by the end of 2007 in order to bring ACP-EU trade relations into compliance with the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) regulations.

At the start of the two-day summit Thursday, in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, Mozambican head of state and current ACP president Armando Emilio Guebeza cut to the heart of concerns raised by the partnership agreements.

“EPAs will not bring substantial benefits to the ACP countries,” he said. “On the contrary, those agreements will contribute to marginalising the ACP Group in an ever more competitive world.”

At present, the EU provides non-reciprocal trade benefits to the ACP, giving member states of the group preferential access to European markets without requiring similar benefits in return. EPAs would see the ACP markets being opened to European goods, as required by the WTO; however, many fear that developing nations in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific will not be able to withstand competition from these goods.

Thursday’s inauguration of the summit also saw the EU accused of failing to communicate with ACP nations.

“Lately the EU has been adopting policies with implications (for) the ACP group, with limited or no consultation with our secretariat,” said ACP Secretary General John Kaputin. “It would add to our relationship if our European friends would give us the courtesy of meaningful consultation on ACP-related policies before they are adopted.”

However, the EU did not let the criticisms of it pass unanswered.

“Far from having a conspiracy (for) the fragmentation of the ACP Group, the European Union is supporting the cementing of the ACP Group for it to play its role on a demanding global scene,” European Representative Philippe Darmuzey said in remarks at the opening of the summit.

ACP and EU states are bound under the 2000 Cotonou Agreement, a 20-year accord named after the Beninese capital where it was signed. The present objectives of the ACP include helping member states play a bigger role in the global economy, and reducing poverty in these countries – several of which are amongst the most deprived.

Summit host Sudan, which boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world, pledged support to other ACP member nations, Thursday.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir also used his opening remarks for the summit to rail against “uneven” development which he said had been perpetuated by the United Nations, amongst others.

“The imbalance applies to the U.N. system and international funding institutions, which lack fair and equitable representation to serve…goals of eradication of poverty, hunger and disease,” Bashir said. “Many of our countries are suffering from conflicts and disputes which have been created by colonial powers.”

The Sudanese leader has also publicly castigated the U.N. in recent months after its attempts to intervene in Sudan’s war-torn western region of Darfur.

Two rebel groups in the area, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), took up arms against Khartoum in February 2003 to protest against alleged neglect of Darfur. Government is said to have responded to these hostilities by attacking civilians of three ethnic groups from which the SLA/M and JEM are viewed as drawing support – the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa.

As the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted in a briefing paper issued last year, ‘Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur’, Sudanese authorities used various strategies in their Darfur campaign, not least deploying forces known as the “janjaweed” (“men on horseback”): “…militias who have been recruited from landless Arab nomadic tribes, some of whom have been involved in past clashes with the farming communities branded as supportive of the rebels.”

Sudan has insisted that the situation in Darfur has been exaggerated by Western nations for political gain.

Nonetheless on Thursday ACP delegates identified the Darfur crisis, in which tens of thousands of people have died and some two million more have been displaced, as the most severe security matter facing the grouping.

Delegates also urged improved co-operation between ACP member states with the aim of reducing poverty and promoting economic development.

They further emphasised the importance of reducing migration from the world’s least developed nations to Europe, and called for improved security in member states wracked by conflict, including Sudan and Fiji, which this week witnessed a military coup.

The summit is scheduled to wrap up on Friday.

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