The three-day meeting being held in Montreal is seen as crucial before the 146-member WTO’s ministerial summit in Cancun, Mexico in September.
The latest round of free trade talks have made little progress since being launched in 2001 in Doha, Qatar.
With only six weeks away from the mid-way point for the completion of the Doha Round – set at the end of 2004 – none of the deadlines for fixing negotiation modalities have been respected.
This informal meeting, or "mini-ministerial," in Montreal -- the third this year after gatherings in Tokyo and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt -- "is the last chance to save Cancun," said a French lobbyist and WTO expert.
"Last chance to save Cancun."
-- WTO expert
Failure of the Doha Round could jeopardize the credibility of the eight-year-old WTO. Bilateral trade pacts could potentially make the global organisation redundant.
But senior Canadian officials played down the view that the Montreal talks is a do or die round.
"What we're doing in Montreal is we're looking for countries to bring new signals of flexibility to the table that would allow negotiators to go back to Geneva and start working towards an agreement on modalities," a Canadian official said.
That way, he continued, "ministers (will) have a smaller number of questions to deal with in Cancun ... the real objective in Cancun is to try to establish modalities as well as a timeline for the rest of the negotiations."
His remarks came as WTO director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi announced in Geneva on Friday a sharp increase in the pace of ailing trade liberalisation talks with daily meetings for heads of delegations from WTO member states starting 11 August.
"We can only move forward if we can see real definite signs for the delegations here to move, and mainly from the key delegations that will have to take a leadership role," Supachai said of the Montreal talks.
Carlos Perez del Castillo, the Uruguayan diplomat heading the talks, said he expected to see, "signals for possible movement and signals for possible trade-offs," from the United States and European Union.
Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's trade minister who will be hosting his counterparts from the US, Japan, the EU, South Africa and Brazil among other nations, said on Friday that he was "very confident" the talks would lay the groundwork needed before the Cancun summit.
"Generally, if you look at other cycles of talks that we have had from the WTO to the GATT, trade ministers commit to the talks very late in the process," he said, saying civil servants and experts do the job until the "last sprint."
Talks on agriculture have stalled over conditions to progressively reduce export subsidies and on access for developing countries' products to enter rich nations' markets.
Comprising itself of many developing countries, one of the most critical issues for the WTO has to do with agricultural subsidies. African nations and the Cairns Group (made up of 17 nations including Australia, Brazil, and Canada), are calling for the US and Europeans to lower their farm subsidies.
HIV/AIDS patients and advocates
have been lobbying for access
to affordable medication
Deadlock over medicine
In December, negotiations over medicine fell into a quagmire when the US came under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry.
The US blocked an accord on the importation by developing nations of generic copies of patented medicine during a health crisis.
But US and EU diplomats said on Friday they were trying to broker a deal which would preserve that tentative agreement on medicines.
No matter the outcome of this week’s trade meeting, protestors in Montreal plan a plethora of activities to disrupt the informal talks.
A protest march is planned for Sunday, with two more on Monday, followed by a day of “massive resistance” on Tuesday. An anti-capitalist carnival is planned on the final day of the meetings on Wednesday.