4.1.2. World Trade Organization
World Trade Organization (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
The WTO has more than 130 members, accounting for over 90% of world trade. Over 30 others are negotiating membership.
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, 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.
The first Ministerial Conference in Singapore in 1996 added three new working groups to this structure. They deal with the relationship between trade and investment, the interaction between trade and competition policy and transparency in government procurement.
At the second Ministerial Conference in Geneva in 1998 ministers decided that the WTO would also study the area of electronic commerce, a task to be shared out among existing councils and committees.
How can you ensure that trade is as fair as possible, and as free as is practical? By negotiating rules and abiding by them. The WTO’s rules — the agreements — are the result of negotiations between the members. The current set were the outcome of the 1986–94 Uruguay Round negotiations which included a major revision of the original General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
GATT is now the WTO’s principal rule-book for trade in goods. The Uruguay Round also created new rules for dealing with trade in services, relevant aspects of intellectual property, dispute settlement, and trade policy reviews. The complete set runs to some 30,000 pages consisting of about 60 agreements and separate commitments (called schedules), made by individual members in specific areas such as lower customs duty rates and services market-opening.
Through these agreements, WTO members operate a non-discriminatory trading system that spells out their rights and their obligations. Each country receives guarantees that its exports will be treated fairly and consistently in other countries’ markets. Each promises to do the same for imports into its own market. The system also gives developing countries some flexibility in implementing their commitments.
The WTO’s intellectual property agreement amounts to rules for trade and investment in ideas and creativity.
The rules state how copyrights, trademarks, geographical names used to identify products, industrial designs, integrated circuit layout-designs and undisclosed information such as trade secrets — "intellectual property" — should be protected when trade is involved.
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. Judgements by specially-appointed independent experts are based on interpretations of the agreements and individual countries’ commitments.The system encourages countries to settle their differences through consultation. Failing that, they can follow a carefully mapped out, stage-by-stage procedure that includes the possibility of a ruling by a panel of experts, and the chance to appeal the ruling on legal grounds.