The upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organization should not be held in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

"Holding this meeting in Qatar would shut down any possibility of peaceful protest," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The WTO can't avoid public protests by holding a meeting in a country that doesn't allow public protest. That would send the signal that it's okay to build the global economy on a foundation of repression -- exactly the opposite of the message the WTO should be pronouncing."

Roth said that either Qatar must pledge that free assembly will be respected or the WTO ministers should find another location.

Qatar's human rights record is blemished, Human Rights Watch said. Although the free-wheeling al-Jazeera satellite television station is based in Qatar, the government restricts freedom of assembly. The U.S. State Deparment's latest report on Qatar, published in Feburary 2000, noted severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and association:

The Government severely limits freedom of assembly. The Government does not allow political demonstrations.

The Government severely limits freedom of association. The Government does not allow political parties or membership in international professional organizations critical of the Government or of any other Arab government. Private social, sports, trade, professional, and cultural societies must be registered with the Government. Security forces monitor the activities of such groups.

The Reuters news agency reported from Geneva yesterday that diplomats expected Qatar to host the meeting, which reportedly is scheduled for later this year. The story quoted Qatar's ambassador to the WTO, Fahad Awaid al-Thani, who said that WTO member states informally polled by WTO General Council chairman Kare Bryn of Norway had found "no opposition to us."

The WTO told Human Rights Watch today that the venue decision will be made by the organization's General Council, which is next scheduled to meet on February 8 in Geneva. The WTO said there was a possibility that the council would convene before the end of January although a date had not yet been set.

Increasing public concern about the WTO's failure to incorporate respect for human rights, labor rights, the environment, and globalization's impact on the poor culminated in large-scale protests during the last ministerial meetings in Seattle in November 1999. Subsequent protests occurred at the spring and annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that were held in Washington, D.C. and Prague, respectively.

"Instead of addressing protesters' concerns, the only thing the WTO seems to have learned is to hold meetings in countries that ban public protests altogether," said Roth.