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The World Trade Organization (WTO) came into being in 1995. One of the youngest of the international organizations, the WTO is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) established in the wake of the Second World War. While the WTO is still young, the multilateral trading system that was originally set up under GATT is well over 50 years old. The past 50 years have seen an exceptional growth in world trade.

It is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. It has nearly 150 members, accounting for over 97% of world trade. Around 30 other countries are currently negotiating membership.

The multilateral trade system was developed through a series of trade negotiations, or rounds, held under GATT. The first rounds dealt mainly with tariff reductions but later negotiations included other areas such as anti-dumping and non-tariff measures. The last round – the 1986-1994 Uruguay Round – led to the WTO’s creation. In 1997, further negotiations considered wide-ranging liberalization measures in telecommunications services. Negotiations were held for tariff-free trade in information technology products, banking, insurance, securities and financial information. In 2000, new talks started on agriculture and services. These have now been incorporated into a broader work programme, the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), launched at the fourth WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, in November 2001. The agenda adds negotiations and other work on non-agricultural tariffs, trade and environment, WTO rules such as anti-dumping and subsidies, investment, competition policy, trade facilitation, transparency in government procurement, intellectual property, and a range of issues raised by developing countries as difficulties they face in implementing the present WTO agreements.

Objective of the WTO

The WTO’s overriding objective is to help trade flow smoothly, freely, fairly and predictably.

It does this by:

  • Administering trade agreements
  • Acting as a forum for trade negotiations
  • Settling trade disputes
  • Reviewing national trade policies
  • Assisting developing countries in trade policy issues, through technical assistance and training programmes
  • Cooperating with other international organizations

Over three-quarters of WTO members are developing or least developed countries. All WTO agreements contain special provision for them, including longer time periods to implement agreements and commitments, measures to increase their trading opportunities, provisions requiring all WTO members to safeguard their trade interests, and support to help them build the infrastructure for WTO work, handle disputes, and implement technical standards.

Structure of the WTO

Decisions are made by the entire membership. This is typically by consensus. A majority vote is also possible but it has never been used in the WTO, and was extremely rare under the WTO’s predecessor, the GATT.

The WTO’s agreements have been ratified in all members’ parliaments. The WTO’s top level decision-making body is the Ministerial Conference which meets at least once every two years.

Below this is the General Council (normally ambassadors and heads of delegation in Geneva, but sometimes officials sent from members’ capitals) which meets several times a year in the Geneva headquarters. The General Council also meets as the Trade Policy Review Body and the Dispute Settlement Body.

At the next level, the Goods Council, Services Council and Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Council report to the General Council. Numerous specialized committees, working groups and working parties deal with the individual agreements and other areas such as the environment, development, membership applications and regional trade agreements.


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