GENEVA, Oct 6 (Reuters) – Liberia agreed terms to join the World Trade Organization with the body's existing 161 members on Tuesday, clearing the final negotiating hurdle in time for ministers to rubber-stamp the deal at a meeting in December, the WTO said.
Liberia has been ravaged by the Ebola epidemic over the past 18 months, spurring the effort by the WTO and Liberia's Trade Minister Axel Addy to clinch a deal that should help build confidence in its weak economy and reduce poverty.
"My dream is that the work we have done here will pave the way for a better Liberia for all of us and our children so they too can exercise their potential," Addy told the WTO working party on Liberia after it agreed on the membership terms.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told Reuters last month that her country needed two years to regain its economic footing after Ebola, which has killed 4,800 people in Liberia and a total of 11,000 across West Africa. Liberia was declared free of the virus for a second time on Sept. 3.
Joining the WTO involves a two-track process in which a candidate country must bring its laws into line with the WTO rulebook and also offer to cut barriers to trade, giving every existing WTO member an effective veto on each new joiner.
Least-developed countries like Liberia have been given an easier ride since 2011 in a bid to encourage them to join.
The working party chairman Joachim Reiter said the agreement was a win-win for such countries, for Africa and the WTO.
"Liberia's WTO accession is a strong, positive and clear signal of its commitment to engaging with the global economy in the framework of the rules-based trading system," Reiter said.
Twenty countries are still negotiating terms for membership, including seven that are classed as least-developed: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Sao Tomé & Principe, and Sudan.
Other countries that are not yet members include Algeria, Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia and Uzbekistan.
Once WTO ministers give the Liberian deal their blessing at the WTO's biennial meeting in Nairobi in December, Liberia will still need to ratify the terms before June 15, 2016 and then will become a full member of the WTO 30 days later. (Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)