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The World Trade Organization (WTO) & its role in International Business
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only international organization dealing with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.
The result is assurance. Consumers and producers know that they can enjoy secure supplies and greater choice of the finished products, components, raw materials and services that they use. Producers and exporters know that foreign markets will remain open to them.
The result is also a more prosperous, peaceful and accountable economic world. Virtually all decisions in the WTO are taken by consensus among all member countries and they are ratified by members’ parliaments. Trade friction is channeled into the WTO’s dispute settlement process where the focus is on interpreting agreements and commitments, and how to ensure that countries’ trade policies conform to them. That way, the risk of disputes spilling over into political or military conflict is reduced.
By lowering trade barriers, the WTO’s system also breaks down other barriers between peoples and nations.
At the heart of the system — known as the multilateral trading system — are the WTO’s agreements, negotiated and signed by a large majority of the world’s trading nations, and ratified in their parliaments. These agreements are the legal ground-rules for international commerce. Essentially, they are contracts, guaranteeing member countries important trade rights. They also bind governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits to everybody’s benefit.
The agreements were negotiated and signed by governments. But their purpose is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business.
The goal is to improve the welfare of the peoples of the member countries.
What is WTO?
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business.
Fact File of WTO
Location: Geneva, Switzerland
Established: 1 January 1995
Created by: Uruguay Round negotiations (1986-94)
Membership: 153 countries on 23 July 2008
Budget: 194 million Swiss francs for 2010
Secretariat staff: 637
Head: Pascal Lamy (Director-General)
• Negotiating the reduction or elimination of obstacles to trade (import tariffs, other barriers to trade) and agreeing on rules governing the conduct of international trade (e.g. antidumping, subsidies, product standards, etc.)
• Administering and monitoring the application of the WTO’s agreed rules for trade in goods, trade in services, and trade-related intellectual property rights
• Monitoring and reviewing the trade policies of our members, as well as ensuring transparency of regional and bilateral trade agreements
• Settling disputes among our members regarding the interpretation and application of the agreements
• Building capacity of developing country government officials in international trade matters
• Assisting the process of accession of some 30 countries who are not yet members of the organization
• Conducting economic research and collecting and disseminating trade data in support of the WTO’s other main activities
• Explaining to and educating the public about the WTO, its mission and its activities.
There are a number of ways of looking at the World Trade Organization. It is an organization for trade opening. It is a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements. It is a place for them to settle trade disputes. It operates a system of trade rules. Essentially, the WTO is a place where member governments try to sort out the trade problems they face with each other.
The WTO was born out of negotiations, and everything the WTO does is the result of negotiations. The bulk of the WTO’s current work comes from the 1986–94 negotiations called the Uruguay Round and earlier negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO is currently the host to new negotiations, under the ‘Doha Development Agenda’ launched in 2001.
Where countries have faced trade barriers and wanted them lowered, the negotiations have helped to open markets for trade. But the WTO is not just about opening markets, and in some circumstances its rules support maintaining trade barriers — for example, to protect consumers or prevent the spread of disease.
At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations. These documents provide the legal ground rules for international commerce. They are essentially contracts, binding governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits. Although negotiated and signed by governments, the goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, while allowing governments to meet social and environmental objectives.
The system’s overriding purpose is to help trade flow as freely as possible — so long as there are no undesirable side effects — because this is important for economic development and well-being. That partly means removing obstacles. It also means ensuring that individuals, companies and governments know what the trade rules are around the world, and giving them the confidence that there will be no sudden changes of policy. In other words, the rules have to be ‘transparent’ and predictable.
Trade relations often involve conflicting interests. Agreements, including those painstakingly negotiated in the WTO system, often need interpreting. The most harmonious way to settle these differences is through some neutral procedure based on an agreed legal foundation. That is the purpose behind the dispute settlement process written into the WTO agreements.
The WTO is run by its member governments. All major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, either by ministers (who usually meet at least once every two years) or by their ambassadors or delegates (who meet regularly in Geneva).
While the WTO is driven by its member states, it could not function without its Secretariat to coordinate the activities. The Secretariat employs over 600 staff and its experts — lawyers, economists, statisticians and communications experts — assist WTO members on a daily basis to ensure, among other things, that negotiations progress smoothly, and that the rules of international trade are correctly applied and enforced.
The WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and to open and keep open services markets. They set procedures for settling disputes. These agreements are not static; they are renegotiated from time to time and new agreements can be added to the package. Many are now being negotiated under the Doha Development Agenda, launched by WTO trade ministers in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001.
Implementation and monitoring
WTO agreements require governments to make their trade policies transparent by notifying the WTO about laws in force and measures adopted. Various WTO councils and committees seek to ensure that these requirements are being followed and that WTO agreements are being properly implemented. All WTO members must undergo periodic scrutiny of their trade policies and practices, each review containing reports by the country concerned and the WTO Secretariat.
The WTO’s procedure for resolving trade quarrels under the Dispute Settlement Understanding is vital for enforcing the rules and therefore for ensuring that trade flows smoothly. Countries bring disputes to the WTO if they think their rights under the agreements are being infringed. Judgments by specially appointed independent experts are based on interpretations of the agreements and individual countries’ commitments.
Building trade capacity
WTO agreements contain special provision for developing countries, including longer time periods to implement agreements and commitments, measures to increase their trading opportunities, and support to help them build their trade capacity, to handle disputes and to implement technical standards. The WTO organizes hundreds of technical cooperation missions to developing countries annually. It also holds numerous courses each year in Geneva for government officials. Aid for Trade aims to help developing countries develop the skills and infrastructure needed to expand their trade.
The WTO maintains regular dialogue with non-governmental organizations, parliamentarians, other international organizations, the media and the general public on various aspects of the WTO and the ongoing Doha negotiations, with the aim of enhancing cooperation and increasing awareness of WTO activities.
Protect the environment
The WTO’s agreements permit members to take measures to protect not only the environment but also public health, animal health and plant health. However, these measures must be applied in the same way to both national and foreign businesses. In other words, members must not use environmental protection measures as a means of disguising protectionist policies.
Understanding the WTO
The first step is to talk.
Essentially, the WTO is a place where member governments go, to try to sort out the trade problems they face with each other.
At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations.
But the WTO is not just about liberalizing trade, and in some circumstances its rules support maintaining trade barriers — for example to protect consumers, prevent the spread of disease or protect the environment.
The WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and to open and keep open services markets. They set procedures for settling disputes. They prescribe special treatment for developing countries. They require governments to make their trade policies transparent by notifying the WTO about laws in force and measures adopted, and through regular reports by the secretariat on countries’ trade policies.
These agreements are often called the WTO’s trade rules, and the WTO is often described as “rules-based”, a system based on rules. But it’s important to remember that the rules are actually agreements that governments negotiated.
This chapter focuses on the Uruguay Round agreements, which are the basis of the present WTO system. Additional work is also now underway in the WTO. This is the result of decisions taken at Ministerial Conferences, in particular the meeting in Doha, November 2001, when new negotiations and other work were launched.
The case for open trade
The economic case for an open trading system based on multilaterally agreed rules is simple enough and rests largely on commercial common sense. But it is also supported by evidence: the experience of world trade and economic growth since the Second World War. Tariffs on industrial products have fallen steeply and now average less than 5% in industrial countries. During the first 25 years after the war, world economic growth averaged about 5% per year, a high rate that was partly the result of lower trade barriers. World trade grew even faster, averaging about 8% during the period.
The data show a definite statistical link between freer trade and economic growth. Economic theory points to strong reasons for the link. All countries, including the poorest, have assets — human, industrial, natural, financial — which they can employ to produce goods and services for their domestic markets or to compete overseas. Economics tells us that we can benefit when these goods and services are traded. Simply put, the principle of “comparative advantage” says that countries prosper first by taking advantage of their assets in order to concentrate on what they can produce best, and then by trading these products for products that other countries produce best.
In other words, liberal trade policies — policies that allow the unrestricted flow of goods and services — sharpen competition, motivate innovation and breed success. They multiply the rewards that result from producing the best products, with the best design, at the best price.
But success in trade is not static. The ability to compete well in particular products can shift from company to company when the market changes or new technologies make cheaper and better products possible. Producers are encouraged to adapt gradually and in a relatively painless way. They can focus on new products, find a new “niche” in their current area or expand into new areas.
Experience shows that competitiveness can also shift between whole countries. A country that may have enjoyed an advantage because of lower labor costs or because it had good supplies of some natural resources, could also become uncompetitive in some goods or services as its economy develops. However, with the stimulus of an open economy, the country can move on to become competitive in some other goods or services. This is normally a gradual process.
Nevertheless, the temptation to ward off the challenge of competitive imports is always present. And richer governments are more likely to yield to the siren call of protectionism, for short term political gain — through subsidies, complicated red tape, and hiding behind legitimate policy objectives such as environmental preservation or consumer protection as an excuse to protect producers.
Protection ultimately leads to bloated, inefficient producers supplying consumers with outdated, unattractive products. In the end, factories close and jobs are lost despite the protection and subsidies. If other governments around the world pursue the same policies, markets contract and world economic activity is reduced. One of the objectives that governments bring to WTO negotiations is to prevent such a self-defeating and destructive drift into protectionism.
World trade and production have accelerated.
Both trade and GDP fell in the late 1920s, before bottoming out in 1932. After World War II, both have risen exponentially, most of the time with trade outpacing GDP.
(1950 = 100. Trade and GDP: log scale)
The GATT years: from Havana to Marrakesh
The WTO’s creation on 1 January 1995 marked the biggest reform of international trade since after the Second World War. It also brought to reality — in an updated form — the failed attempt in 1948 to create an International Trade Organization.
Much of the history of those 47 years was written in Geneva. But it also traces a journey that spanned the continents, from that hesitant start in 1948 in Havana (Cuba), via Annecy (France), Torquay (UK), Tokyo (Japan), Punta del Este (Uruguay), Montreal (Canada), Brussels (Belgium) and finally to Marrakesh (Morocco) in 1994. During that period, the trading system came under GATT, salvaged from the aborted attempt to create the ITO. GATT helped establish a strong and prosperous multilateral trading system that became more and more liberal through rounds of trade negotiations. But by the 1980s the system needed a thorough overhaul. This led to the Uruguay Round, and ultimately to the WTO.
GATT: ‘provisional’ for almost half a century
From 1948 to 1994, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) provided the rules for much of world trade and presided over periods that saw some of the highest growth rates in international commerce. It seemed well-established, but throughout those 47 years, it was a provisional agreement and organization.
The original intention was to create a third institution to handle the trade side of international economic cooperation, joining the two “Bretton Woods” institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Over 50 countries participated in negotiations to create an International Trade Organization (ITO) as a specialized agency of the United Nations. The draft ITO Charter was ambitious. It extended beyond world trade disciplines, to include rules on employment, commodity agreements, restrictive business practices, international investment, and services. The aim was to create the ITO at a UN Conference on Trade and Employment in Havana, Cuba in 1947.
Meanwhile, 15 countries had begun talks in December 1945 to reduce and bind customs tariffs. With the Second World War only recently ended, they wanted to give an early boost to trade liberalization, and to begin to correct the legacy of protectionist measures which remained in place from the early 1930s.
This first round of negotiations resulted in a package of trade rules and 45,000 tariff concessions affecting $10 billion of trade, about one fifth of the world’s total. The group had expanded to 23 by the time the deal was signed on 30 October 1947. The tariff concessions came into effect by 30 June 1948 through a “Protocol of Provisional Application”. And so the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was born, with 23 founding members (officially “contracting parties”).
The 23 were also part of the larger group negotiating the ITO Charter. One of the provisions of GATT says that they should accept some of the trade rules of the draft. This, they believed, should be done swiftly and “provisionally” in order to protect the value of the tariff concessions they had negotiated. They spelt out how they envisaged the relationship between GATT and the ITO Charter, but they also allowed for the possibility that the ITO might not be created. They were right.
The Havana conference began on 21 November 1947, less than a month after GATT was signed. The ITO Charter was finally agreed in Havana in March 1948, but ratification in some national legislatures proved impossible. The most serious opposition was in the US Congress, even though the US government had been one of the driving forces. In 1950, the United States government announced that it would not seek Congressional ratification of the Havana Charter, and the ITO was effectively dead. So, the GATT became the only multilateral instrument governing international trade from 1948 until the WTO was established in 1995.
For almost half a century, the GATT’s basic legal principles remained much as they were in 1948. There were additions in the form of a section on development added in the 1960s and “plurilateral” agreements (i.e. with voluntary membership) in the 1970s, and efforts to reduce tariffs further continued. Much of this was achieved through a series of multilateral negotiations known as “trade rounds” — the biggest leaps forward in international trade liberalization have come through these rounds which were held under GATT’s auspices.
In the early years, the GATT trade rounds concentrated on further reducing tariffs. Then, the Kennedy Round in the mid-sixties brought about a GATT Anti-Dumping Agreement and a section on development. The Tokyo Round during the seventies was the first major attempt to tackle trade barriers that do not take the form of tariffs, and to improve the system. The eighth, the Uruguay Round of 1986-94, was the last and most extensive of all. It led to the WTO and a new set of agreements.
GATT trade rounds
Year Place/name Subjects covered Countries
1947 Geneva Tariffs 23
1949 Annecy Tariffs 13
1951 Torquay Tariffs 38
1956 Geneva Tariffs 26
Dillon Round Tariffs 26
Kennedy Round Tariffs and anti-dumping measures 62
Tokyo Round Tariffs, non-tariff measures, “framework” agreements 102
Uruguay Round Tariffs, non-tariff measures, rules, services, intellectual property, dispute settlement, textiles, agriculture, creation of WTO, etc 123
Did GATT succeed?
GATT was provisional with a limited field of action, but its success over 47 years in promoting and securing the liberalization of much of world trade is incontestable. Continual reductions in tariffs alone helped spur very high rates of world trade growth during the 1950s and 1960s — around 8% a year on average. And the momentum of trade liberalization helped ensure that trade growth consistently out-paced production growth throughout the GATT era, a measure of countries’ increasing ability to trade with each other and to reap the benefits of trade. The rush of new members during the Uruguay Round demonstrated that the multilateral trading system was recognized as an anchor for development and an instrument of economic and trade reform.
But all was not well. As time passed new problems arose. The Tokyo Round in the 1970s was an attempt to tackle some of these but its achievements were limited. This was a sign of difficult times to come.
GATT’s success in reducing tariffs to such a low level, combined with a series of economic recessions in the 1970s and early 1980s, drove governments to devise other forms of protection for sectors facing increased foreign competition. High rates of unemployment and constant factory closures led governments in Western Europe and North America to seek bilateral market-sharing arrangements with competitors and to embark on a subsidies race to maintain their holds on agricultural trade. Both these changes undermined GATT’s credibility and effectiveness.
The problem was not just a deteriorating trade policy environment. By the early 1980s the General Agreement was clearly no longer as relevant to the realities of world trade as it had been in the 1940s. For a start, world trade had become far more complex and important than 40 years before: the globalization of the world economy was underway, trade in services — not covered by GATT rules — was of major interest to more and more countries, and international investment had expanded. The expansion of services trade was also closely tied to further increases in world merchandise trade. In other respects, GATT had been found wanting. For instance, in agriculture, loopholes in the multilateral system were heavily exploited, and efforts at liberalizing agricultural trade met with little success. In the textiles and clothing sector, an exception to GATT’s normal disciplines was negotiated in the 1960s and early 1970s, leading to the Multifibre Arrangement. Even GATT’s institutional structure and its dispute settlement system were causing concern.
These and other factors convinced GATT members that a new effort to reinforce and extend the multilateral system should be attempted. That effort resulted in the Uruguay Round, the Marrakesh Declaration, and the creation of the WTO.
The Tokyo Round ‘codes’
Subsidies and countervailing measures — interpreting Articles 6, 16 and 23 of GATT
Technical barriers to trade — sometimes called the Standards Code
Import licensing procedures
Customs valuation — interpreting Article 7
Anti-dumping — interpreting Article 6, replacing the Kennedy Round code
Bovine Meat Arrangement
International Dairy Arrangement
Trade in Civil Aircraft
The size of the package can mean more benefits because participants can seek and secure advantages across a wide range of issues.
Agreement can be easier to reach, through trade-offs — somewhere in the package there should be something for everyone.
Developing countries and other less powerful participants have a greater chance of influencing the multilateral system in a trade round than in bilateral relationships with major trading nations.
But the size of a trade round can be both strength and a weakness. From time to time, the question is asked: wouldn’t it be simpler to concentrate negotiations on a single sector? Recent history is inconclusive. At some stages, the Uruguay Round seemed so cumbersome that it seemed impossible that all participants could agree on every subject. Then the round did end successfully in 1993-94. This was followed by two years of failure to reach agreement in the single-sector talks on maritime transport.
The Uruguay Round
It took seven and a half years, almost twice the original schedule. By the end, 123 countries were taking part. It covered almost all trade, from toothbrushes to pleasure boats, from banking to telecommunications, from the genes of wild rice to AIDS treatments. It was quite simply the largest trade negotiation ever, and most probably the largest negotiation of any kind in history.
At times it seemed doomed to fail. But in the end, the Uruguay Round brought about the biggest reform of the world’s trading system since GATT was created at the end of the Second World War. And yet, despite its troubled progress, the Uruguay Round did see some early results. Within only two years, participants had agreed on a package of cuts in import duties on tropical products — which are mainly exported by developing countries. They had also revised the rules for settling disputes, with some measures implemented on the spot. And they called for regular reports on GATT members’ trade policies, a move considered important for making trade regimes transparent around the world.
The seeds of the Uruguay Round were sown in November 1982 at a ministerial meeting of GATT members in Geneva. Although the ministers intended to launch a major new negotiation, the conference stalled on agriculture and was widely regarded as a failure. In fact, the work programme that the ministers agreed formed the basis for what was to become the Uruguay Round negotiating agenda.
Nevertheless, it took four more years of exploring, clarifying issues and painstaking consensus-building, before ministers agreed to launch the new round. They did so in September 1986, in Punta del Este, Uruguay. They eventually accepted a negotiating agenda that covered virtually every outstanding trade policy issue. The talks were going to extend the trading system into several new areas, notably trade in services and intellectual property, and to reform trade in the sensitive sectors of agriculture and textiles. All the original GATT articles were up for review. It was the biggest negotiating mandate on trade ever agreed, and the ministers gave themselves four years to complete it.
Two years later, in December 1988, ministers met again in Montreal, Canada, for what was supposed to be an assessment of progress at the round’s half-way point. The purpose was to clarify the agenda for the remaining two years, but the talks ended in a deadlock that was not resolved until officials met more quietly in Geneva the following April.
Despite the difficulty, during the Montreal meeting, ministers did agree a package of early results. These included some concessions on market access for tropical products — aimed at assisting developing countries — as well as a streamlined dispute settlement system, and the Trade Policy Review Mechanism which provided for the first comprehensive, systematic and regular reviews of national trade policies and practices of GATT members. The round was supposed to end when ministers met once more in Brussels, in December 1990. But they disagreed on how to reform agricultural trade and decided to extend the talks. The Uruguay Round entered its bleakest period.
Despite the poor political outlook, a considerable amount of technical work continued, leading to the first draft of a final legal agreement. This draft “Final Act” was compiled by the then GATT director-general, Arthur Dunkel, who chaired the negotiations at officials’ level. It was put on the table in Geneva in December 1991. The text fulfilled every part of the Punta del Este mandate, with one exception — it did not contain the participating countries’ lists of commitments for cutting import duties and opening their services markets. The draft became the basis for the final agreement.
Over the following two years, the negotiations lurched between impending failures, to predictions of imminent success. Several deadlines came and went. New points of major conflict emerged to join agriculture: services, market access, anti-dumping rules, and the proposed creation of a new institution. Differences between the United States and European Union became central to hopes for a final, successful conclusion.
In November 1992, the US and EU settled most of their differences on agriculture in a deal known informally as the “Blair House accord”. By July 1993 the “Quad” (US, EU, Japan and Canada) announced significant progress in negotiations on tariffs and related subjects (“market access”). It took until 15 December 1993 for every issue to be finally resolved and for negotiations on market access for goods and services to be concluded (although some final touches was completed in talks on market access a few weeks later). On 15 April 1994, the deal was signed by ministers from most of the 123 participating governments at a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco.
The delay had some merits. It allowed some negotiations to progress further than would have been possible in 1990: for example some aspects of services and intellectual property, and the creation of the WTO itself. But the task had been immense, and negotiation-fatigue was felt in trade bureaucracies around the world. The difficulty of reaching agreement on a complete package containing almost the entire range of current trade issues led some to conclude that a negotiation on this scale would never again be possible. Yet, the Uruguay Round agreements contain timetables for new negotiations on a number of topics. And by 1996, some countries were openly calling for a new round early in the next century. The response was mixed; but the Marrakesh agreement did already include commitments to reopen negotiations on agriculture and services at the turn of the century. These began in early 2000 and were incorporated into the Doha Development Agenda in late 2001.
Overview: a navigational guide
The WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and to open and keep open services markets. They set procedures for settling disputes. They prescribe special treatment for developing countries. They require governments to make their trade policies transparent by notifying the WTO about laws in force and measures adopted, and through regular reports by the secretariat on countries’ trade policies.
The annexes: services are not all the same
International trade in goods is a relatively simple idea to grasp: a product is transported from one country to another. Trade in services is much more diverse. Telephone companies, banks, airlines and accountancy firms provide their services in quite different ways. The GATS annexes reflect some of the diversity.
Movement of natural persons This annex deals with negotiations on individuals’ rights to stay temporarily in a country for the purpose of providing a service. It specifies that the agreement does not apply to people seeking permanent employment or to conditions for obtaining citizenship, permanent residence or permanent employment.
Financial services Instability in the banking system affects the whole economy. The financial services annex gives government’s very wide latitude to take prudential measures, such as those for the protection of investors, depositors and insurance policy holders, and to ensure the integrity and stability of the financial system. The annex also excludes from the agreement services provided when a government is exercising its authority over the financial system, for example central banks’ services.
Telecommunications The telecommunications sector has a dual role: it is a distinct sector of economic activity; and it is an underlying means of supplying other economic activities (for example electronic money transfers). The annex says governments must ensure that foreign service suppliers are given access to the public telecommunications networks without discrimination.
Air transport services Under this annex, traffic rights and directly related activities are excluded from GATS’s coverage. They are handled by other bilateral agreements. However, the annex establishes that the GATS will apply to aircraft repair and maintenance services, marketing of air transport services and computer-reservation services. Members are currently reviewing the annex.
GATS set a heavy work programme covering a wide range of subjects. Work on some of the subjects started in 1995, as required, soon after GATS came into force in January 1995. Negotiations to further liberalize international trade in services started in 2000, along with other work involving study and review.
Negotiations (Article 19) Negotiations to further liberalize international trade in services started in early 2000 as mandated by GATS (Article 19).
The first phase of the negotiations ended successfully in March 2001 when members agreed on the guidelines and procedures for the negotiations, a key element in the negotiating mandate. By agreeing these guidelines, members set the objectives, scope and method for the negotiations in a clear and balanced manner.
They also unequivocally endorsed some of GATS’ fundamental principles — i.e. members’ right to regulate and to introduce new regulations on the supply of services in pursuit of national policy objectives; their right to specify which services they wish to open to foreign suppliers and under which conditions; and the overarching principle of flexibility for developing and least-developed countries. The guidelines are therefore sensitive to public policy concerns in important sectors such as health-care, public education and cultural industries, while stressing the importance of liberalization in general, and ensuring Foreign Service providers have effective access to domestic markets.
The 2001 Doha Ministerial Declaration incorporated these negotiations into the “single undertaking” of the Doha Development Agenda. Since July 2002, a process of bilateral negotiations on market access has been underway.
Work on GATS rules (Articles 10, 13, and 15) Negotiations started in 1995 and are continuing on the development of possible disciplines that are not yet included in GATS: rules on emergency safeguard measures, government procurement and subsidies. Work so far has concentrated on safeguards. These are temporary limitations on market access to deal with market disruption, and the negotiations aim to set up procedures and disciplines for governments using these. Several deadlines have been missed. The current aim is for the results to come into effect at the same time as those of the current services negotiations.
Work on domestic regulations (Article 6.4) Work started in 1995 to establish disciplines on domestic regulations — i.e. the requirements Foreign Service suppliers have to meet in order to operate in a market. The focus is on qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards and licensing requirements. By December 1998, members had agreed disciplines on domestic regulations for the accountancy sector. Since then, members have been engaged in developing general disciplines for all professional services and, where necessary, additional sectoral disciplines. All the agreed disciplines will be integrated into GATS and become legally binding by the end of the current services negotiations.
MFN exemptions (Annex on Article 2) Work on this subject started in 2000. When GATS came into force in 1995, members were allowed a once-only opportunity to take an exemption from the MFN principle of non-discrimination between a member’s trading partners. The measure for which the exemption was taken is described in a member’s MFN exemption list, indicating to which member the more favorable treatment applies, and specifying its duration. In principle, these exemptions should not last for more than ten years. As mandated by GATS, all these exemptions are currently being reviewed to examine whether the conditions which created the need for these exemptions in the first place still exist. And in any case, they are part of the current services negotiations.
Taking account of “autonomous” liberalization (Article 19) Countries that have liberalized on their own initiative since the last multilateral negotiations want that to be taken into account when they negotiate market access in services. The negotiating guidelines and procedures that members agreed in March 2001 for the GATS negotiations also call for criteria for taking this “autonomous” or unilateral liberalization into account. These were agreed on 6 March 2003.
Special treatment for least-developed countries (Article 19) GATS mandates members to establish how to give special treatment to least-developed countries during the negotiations. (These “modalities” cover both the scope of the special treatment, and the methods to be used.) The least-developed countries began the discussions in March 2002. As a result of subsequent discussions, Members agreed the modalities on 3 September 2003.
Assessment of trade in services (Article 19) Preparatory work on this subject started in early 1999. GATS mandate that members assess trade in services, including the GATS objective of increasing the developing countries’ participation in services trade. The negotiating guidelines reiterate this, requiring the negotiations to be adjusted in response to the assessment. Members generally acknowledge that the shortage of statistical information and other methodological problems make it impossible to conduct an assessment based on full data. However, they are continuing their discussions with the assistance of several papers produced by the Secretariat.
Air transport services At present, most of the air transport sector — traffic rights and services directly related to traffic rights — are excluded from GATS’ coverage. However, GATS mandates a review by members of this situation. The purpose of the review, which started in early 2000, is to decide whether additional air transport services should be covered by GATS. The review could develop into a negotiation in its own right, resulting in an amendment of GATS itself by adding new services to its coverage and by adding specific commitments on these new services to national schedules.
Intellectual property: protection and enforcement
The WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), negotiated in the 1986-94 Uruguay Round, introduced intellectual property rules into the multilateral trading system for the first time.
Ideas and knowledge are an increasingly important part of trade. Most of the value of new medicines and other high technology products lies in the amount of invention, innovation, research, design and testing involved. Films, music recordings, books, computer software and on-line services are bought and sold because of the information and creativity they contain, not usually because of the plastic, metal or paper used to make them. Many products that used to be traded as low-technology goods or commodities now contain a higher proportion of invention and design in their value — for example brand named clothing or new varieties of plants.
Creators can be given the right to prevent others from using their inventions, designs or other creations — and to use that right to negotiate payment in return for others using them. These are “intellectual property rights”. They take a number of forms. For example books, paintings and films come under copyright; inventions can be patented; brand names and product logos can be registered as trademarks; and so on. Governments and parliaments have given creators these rights as an incentive to produce ideas that will benefit society as a whole.
The extent of protection and enforcement of these rights varied widely around the world; and as intellectual property became more important in trade, these differences became a source of tension in international economic relations. New internationally-agreed trade rules for intellectual property rights were seen as a way to introduce more order and predictability, and for disputes to be settled more systematically.
The WTO’s TRIPS Agreement is an attempt to narrow the gaps in the way these rights are protected around the world, and to bring them under common international rules. It establishes minimum levels of protection that each government has to give to the intellectual property of fellow WTO members. In doing so, it strikes a balance between the long term benefits and possible short term costs to society. Society benefits in the long term when intellectual property protection encourages creation and invention, especially when the period of protection expires and the creations and inventions enter the public domain. Governments are allowed to reduce any short term costs through various exceptions, for example to tackle public health problems. And, when there are trade disputes over intellectual property rights, the WTO’s dispute settlement system is now available.
The areas covered by the TRIPS Agreement
Copyright and related rights
Trademarks, including service marks
Layout-designs (topographies) of integrated circuits
Undisclosed information, including trade secrets
Trade policy reviews: ensuring transparency
Individuals and companies involved in trade have to know as much as possible about the conditions of trade. It is therefore fundamentally important that regulations and policies are transparent. In the WTO, this is achieved in two ways: governments have to inform the WTO and fellow-members of specific measures, policies or laws through regular “notifications”; and the WTO conducts regular reviews of individual countries’ trade policies — the trade policy reviews. These reviews are part of the Uruguay Round agreement, but they began several years before the round ended — they were an early result of the negotiations. Participants agreed to set up the reviews at the December 1988 ministerial meeting that was intended to be the midway assessment of the Uruguay Round. The first review took place the following year. Initially they operated under GATT and, like GATT, they focused on goods trade. With the creation of the WTO in 1995, their scope was extended, like the WTO, to include services and intellectual property.
The importance countries attach to the process is reflected in the seniority of the Trade Policy Review Body — it is the WTO General Council in another guise.
The objectives are:
To increase the transparency and understanding of countries’ trade policies and practices, through regular monitoring
To improve the quality of public and intergovernmental debate on the issues
To enable a multilateral assessment of the effects of policies on the world trading system.
The reviews focus on members’ own trade policies and practices. But they also take into account the countries’ wider economic and developmental needs, their policies and objectives, and the external economic environment that they face. These “peer reviews” by other WTO members encourage governments to follow more closely the WTO rules and disciplines and to fulfill their commitments. In practice the reviews have two broad results: they enable outsiders to understand a country’s policies and circumstances, and they provide feedback to the reviewed country on its performance in the system.
Over a period of time, all WTO members are to come under scrutiny. The frequency of the reviews depends on the country’s size:
The four biggest traders — the European Union, the United States, Japan and China (the “Quad”) — are examined approximately once every two years.
The next 16 countries (in terms of their share of world trade) are reviewed every four years.
The remaining countries are reviewed every six years, with the possibility of a longer interim period for the least-developed countries.
For each review, two documents are prepared: a policy statement by the government under review, and a detailed report written independently by the WTO Secretariat. These two reports, together with the proceedings of the Trade Policy Review Body’s meetings are published shortly afterwards.
Dispute settlement is the central pillar of the multilateral trading system, and the WTO’s unique contribution to the stability of the global economy. Without a means of settling disputes, the rules-based system would be less effective because the rules could not be enforced. The WTO’s procedure underscores the rule of law, and it makes the trading system more secure and predictable. The system is based on clearly-defined rules, with timetables for completing a case. First rulings are made by a panel and endorsed (or rejected) by the WTO’s full membership. Appeals based on points of law are possible.
However, the point is not to pass judgment. The priority is to settle disputes, through consultations if possible. By January 2008, only about 136 of the nearly 369 cases had reached the full panel process. Most of the rest have either been notified as settled “out of court” or remain in a prolonged consultation phase — some since 1995.
Disputes in the WTO are essentially about broken promises. WTO members have agreed that if they believe fellow-members are violating trade rules, they will use the multilateral system of settling disputes instead of taking action unilaterally. That means abiding by the agreed procedures, and respecting judgments.
A dispute arises when one country adopts a trade policy measure or takes some action that one or more fellow-WTO members considers to be breaking the WTO agreements, or to be a failure to live up to obligations. A third group of countries can declare that they have an interest in the case and enjoy some rights.
A procedure for settling disputes existed under the old GATT, but it had no fixed timetables, rulings were easier to block, and many cases dragged on for a long time inconclusively. The Uruguay Round agreement introduced a more structured process with more clearly defined stages in the procedure. It introduced greater discipline for the length of time a case should take to be settled, with flexible deadlines set in various stages of the procedure. The agreement emphasizes that prompt settlement is essential if the WTO is to function effectively. It sets out in considerable detail the procedures and the timetable to be followed in resolving disputes. If a case runs its full course to a first ruling, it should not normally take more than about one year — 15 months if the case is appealed. The agreed time limits are flexible, and if the case is considered urgent (e.g. if perishable goods are involved), it is accelerated as much as possible.
The Uruguay Round agreement also made it impossible for the country losing a case to block the adoption of the ruling. Under the previous GATT procedure, rulings could only be adopted by consensus, meaning that a single objection could block the ruling. Now, rulings are automatically adopted unless there is a consensus to reject a ruling — any country wanting to block a ruling has to persuade all other WTO members (including its adversary in the case) to share its view.
Although much of the procedure does resemble a court or tribunal, the preferred solution is for the countries concerned to discuss their problems and settle the dispute by themselves. The first stage is therefore consultations between the governments concerned, and even when the case has progressed to other stages, consultation and mediation are still always possible.
How long to settle a dispute? These approximate periods for each stage of a dispute settlement procedure are target figures — the agreement is flexible. In addition, the countries can settle their dispute themselves at any stage. Totals are also approximate.
60 days Consultations, mediation, etc
45 days Panel set up and panelists appointed
6 months Final panel report to parties
3 weeks Final panel report to WTO members
60 days Dispute Settlement Body adopts report (if no appeal)
Total = 1 year (without appeal)
60-90 days Appeals report
30 days Dispute Settlement Body adopts appeals report
Total = 1y 3m (with appeal)
How are disputes settled?
Settling disputes is the responsibility of the Dispute Settlement Body (the General Council in another guise), which consists of all WTO members. The Dispute Settlement Body has the sole authority to establish “panels” of experts to consider the case, and to accept or reject the panels’ findings or the results of an appeal. It monitors the implementation of the rulings and recommendations, and has the power to authorize retaliation when a country does not comply with a ruling.
First stage: consultation (up to 60 days). Before taking any other actions the countries in dispute have to talk to each other to see if they can settle their differences by themselves. If that fails, they can also ask the WTO director-general to mediate or try to help in any other way.
Second stage: the panel (up to 45 days for a panel to be appointed, plus 6 months for the panel to conclude). If consultations fail, the complaining country can ask for a panel to be appointed. The country “in the dock” can block the creation of a panel once, but when the Dispute Settlement Body meets for a second time, the appointment can no longer be blocked (unless there is a consensus against appointing the panel).
Officially, the panel is helping the Dispute Settlement Body make rulings or recommendations. But because the panel’s report can only be rejected by consensus in the Dispute Settlement Body, its conclusions are difficult to overturn. The panel’s findings have to be based on the agreements cited.
The panel’s final report should normally be given to the parties to the dispute within six months. In cases of urgency, including those concerning perishable goods, the deadline is shortened to three months.
The agreement describes in some detail how the panels are to work. The main stages are:
Before the first hearing: each side in the dispute presents its case in writing to the panel.
First hearing: the case for the complaining country and defense: the complaining country (or countries), the responding country, and those that have announced they have an interest in the dispute, make their case at the panel’s first hearing.
Rebuttals: the countries involved submit written rebuttals and present oral arguments at the panel’s second meeting.
Experts: if one side raises scientific or other technical matters, the panel may consult experts or appoint an expert review group to prepare an advisory report.
First draft: the panel submits the descriptive (factual and argument) sections of its report to the two sides, giving them two weeks to comment. This report does not include findings and conclusions.
Interim report: The panel then submits an interim report, including its findings and conclusions, to the two sides, giving them one week to ask for a review.
Review: The period of review must not exceed two weeks. During that time, the panel may hold additional meetings with the two sides.
Final report: A final report is submitted to the two sides and three weeks later, it is circulated to all WTO members. If the panel decides that the disputed trade measure does break a WTO agreement or an obligation, it recommends that the measure be made to conform with WTO rules. The panel may suggest how this could be done.
The report becomes a ruling: The report becomes the Dispute Settlement Body’s ruling or recommendation within 60 days unless a consensus rejects it. Both sides can appeal the report (and in some cases both sides do).
The environment: a specific concern
The WTO has no specific agreement dealing with the environment. However, the WTO agreements confirm governments’ right to protect the environment, provided certain conditions are met, and a number of them include provisions dealing with environmental concerns. The objectives of sustainable development and environmental protection are important enough to be stated in the preamble to the Agreement Establishing the WTO.
The increased emphasis on environmental policies is relatively recent in the 60-year history of the multilateral trading system. At the end of the Uruguay Round in 1994, trade ministers from participating countries decided to begin a comprehensive work programme on trade and environment in the WTO. They created the Trade and Environment Committee. This has brought environmental and sustainable development issues into the mainstream of WTO work. The 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference kicked off negotiations in some aspects of the subject.
A new area of trade involves goods crossing borders electronically. Broadly speaking, this is the production, advertising, sale and distribution of products via telecommunications networks. The most obvious examples of products distributed electronically are books, music and videos transmitted down telephone lines or through the Internet.
The declaration on global electronic commerce adopted by the Second (Geneva) Ministerial Conference on 20 May 1998 urged the WTO General Council to establish a comprehensive work programme to examine all trade-related issues arising from global electronic commerce. The General Council adopted the plan for this work programme on 25 September 1998, initiating discussions on issues of electronic commerce and trade by the Goods, Services and TRIPS (intellectual property) Councils and the Trade and Development Committee.
In the meantime, WTO members also agreed to continue their current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions.
Labor standards: consensus, coherence and controversy
Labor standards are those that are applied to the way workers are treated. The term covers a wide range of things: from use of child labor and forced labor, to the right to organize trade unions and to strike, minimum wages, health and safety conditions, and working hours.
Consensus on core standards, work deferred to the ILO
There is a clear consensus: all WTO member governments are committed to a narrower set of internationally recognized “core” standards — freedom of association, no forced labor, no child labor, and no discrimination at work (including gender discrimination).
At the 1996 Singapore Ministerial Conference, members defined the WTO’s role on this issue, identifying the International Labor Organization (ILO) as the competent body to negotiate labor standards. There is no work on this subject in the WTO’s Councils and Committees. However the secretariats of the two organizations work together on technical issues under the banner of “coherence” in global economic policy-making.
However, beyond that it is not easy for them to agree, and the question of international enforcement is a minefield.
The WTO’s main functions are to do with trade negotiations and the enforcement of negotiated multilateral trade rules (including dispute settlement). Special focus is given to four particular policies supporting these functions:
Assisting developing and transition economies
Developing countries make up about three quarters of the total WTO membership. Together with countries currently in the process of “transition” to market-based economies, they play an increasingly important role in the WTO.
Therefore, much attention is paid to the special needs and problems of developing and transition economies. The WTO Secretariat’s Training and Technical Cooperation Institute organizes a number of programmes to explain how the system works and to help train government officials and negotiators. Some of the events are in Geneva, others are held in the countries concerned. A number of the programmes are organized jointly with other international organizations. Some take the form of training courses. In other cases individual assistance might be offered.
The subjects can be anything from help in dealing with negotiations to join the WTO and implementing WTO commitments to guidance in participating effectively in multilateral negotiations. Developing countries, especially the least-developed among them, are helped with trade and tariff data relating to their own export interests and to their participation in WTO bodies.
Specialized help for exporting: the International Trade Centre
The International Trade Centre was established by GATT in 1964 at the request of the developing countries to help them promote their exports. It is jointly operated by the WTO and the United Nations, the latter acting through UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development).
The centre responds to requests from developing countries for assistance in formulating and implementing export promotion programmes as well as import operations and techniques. It provides information and advice on export markets and marketing techniques. It assists in establishing export promotion and marketing services, and in training personnel required for these services. The centre’s help is freely available to the least-developed countries.
The WTO in global economic policy-making
An important aspect of the WTO’s mandate is to cooperate with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other multilateral institutions to achieve greater coherence in global economic policy-making. A separate Ministerial Declaration was adopted at the Marrakesh Ministerial Meeting in April 1994 to underscore this objective.
The declaration envisages an increased contribution by the WTO to achieving greater coherence in global economic policy-making. It recognizes that different aspects of economic policy are linked, and it calls on the WTO to develop its cooperation with the international organizations responsible for monetary and financial matters — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The declaration also recognizes the contribution that trade liberalization makes to the growth and development of national economies. It says this is an increasingly important component in the success of the economic adjustment programmes which many WTO members are undertaking, even though it may often involve significant social costs during the transition.
10 benefits of the WTO trading system
The world is complex. This booklet is brief, but it tries to reflect the complex and dynamic nature of trade. It highlights some of the benefits of the WTO’s trading system, but it doesn’t claim that everything is perfect—otherwise there would be no need for further negotiations and for the system to evolve and reform continually.
Nor does it claim that everyone agrees with everything in the WTO. That’s one of the most important reasons for having the system: it’s a forum for countries to thrash out their differences on trade issues.
That said, there are many over-riding reasons why we’re better off with the system than without it. Here are 10 of them.
1. The system helps promote peace
2. Disputes are handled constructively
3. Rules make life easier for all
4. Freer trade cuts the costs of living
5. It provides more choice of products and qualities
6. Trade raises incomes
7. Trade stimulates economic growth
8. The basic principles make life more efficient
9. Governments are shielded from lobbying
10. The system encourages good government
10 common misunderstandings about the WTO
Emphatically no. Criticisms of the WTO are often based on fundamental misunderstandings of the way the WTO works.
However, it is important for the debate to be based on a proper understanding of how the system works. This booklet attempts to clear up 10 common misunderstandings.
1. The WTO dictates policy
2. The WTO is for free trade at any cost
3. Commercial interests take priority over development.
4. Commercial interests take priority over the environment
5. Commercial interests take priority and over health and safety
6. The WTO destroys jobs, worsens poverty
7. Small countries are powerless in the WTO
8. The WTO is the tool of powerful lobbies
9. Weaker countries are forced to join the WTO
10. The WTO is undemocratic
The WTO provides a forum for negotiating agreements aimed at reducing obstacles to international trade and ensuring a level playing field for all, thus contributing to economic growth and development. The WTO also provides a legal and institutional framework for the implementation and monitoring of these agreements, as well as for settling disputes arising from their interpretation and application. The current body of trade agreements comprising the WTO consists of 16 different multilateral agreements (to which all WTO members are parties) and two different plurilateral agreements (to which only some WTO members are parties).
Over the past 60 years, the WTO, which was established in 1995, and its predecessor organization the GATT have helped to create a strong and prosperous international trading system, thereby contributing to unprecedented global economic growth. The WTO currently has 153 members, of which 117 are developing countries or separate customs territories. WTO activities are supported by a Secretariat of some 700 staff, led by the WTO Director-General. The Secretariat is located in Geneva, Switzerland, and has an annual budget of approximately CHF 200 million ($180 million, €130 million). The three official languages of the WTO are English, French and Spanish.
Decisions in the WTO are generally taken by consensus of the entire membership. The highest institutional body is the Ministerial Conference, which meets roughly every two years. A General Council conducts the organization’s business in the intervals between Ministerial Conferences. Both of these bodies comprise all members. Specialized subsidiary bodies (Councils, Committees, Sub-committees), also comprising all members, administer and monitor the implementation by members of the various WTO agreements.