From 1948 to 1994, much of the world’s trade was governed by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). GATT as an international organization was replaced by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, but remains in an updated form the WTO’s umbrella treaty for trade in goods. According to the WTO, its overriding objective is to help trade flow smoothly, freely, fairly, and predictably. This involves the WTO administering trade agreements, acting as a forum for trade negotiations; settling trade disputes, reviewing national trade policies, assisting developing countries in trade policy issues, and cooperating with other international organizations. Any state or customs territory with full autonomy in the conduct of its trade policies may join the WTO, but members must agree on the terms. As of July 2008, the WTO had 153 members.
The 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, Switzerland), 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. The Goods Council, Services Council, and Intellectual Property Council report to the General Council. Specialized committees, working groups, and working parties deal with individual agreements and other areas. The WTO Secretariat is headed by a director-general (in November 2009 Pascal Lamy). Its main duties are to supply technical support for the councils and committees and the ministerial conferences, to provide technical assistance for developing countries, to analyze world trade, and to explain WTO affairs to the public and media.
In Doha, Qatar, WTO members in 2001 agreed to undertake a new round of multilateral trade negotiations, the previous round occurring 1986 to 1994 (the Uruguay round). The Doha Development Agenda (DDA) aims to reduce trade barriers and assist developing countries through trade liberalization. The negotiations have been characterized by differences between the United States, the European Union, and developing countries on major issues. These have included agriculture, industrial tariffs and nontariff barriers, services, and trade remedies. As of October 2009. the DDA had yet to be concluded. The WTO in 2009 identified various key issues warranting discussion. These included the WTO and the multilateral trading system’s role in addressing the global economic crisis, the Doha round’s relevance during the crisis, and the main challenges facing the multilateral trading system after the crisis. Another issue was the impact of the crisis on developing countries, especially those least developed.
There has been critique of the WTO on various grounds, and major protests occurred during the 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle, Washington. The WTO itself has identified what it calls common “misunderstandings” regarding its work. These include critics arguing that the WTO dictates to governments what to do; promotes free trade at any costs; ignores development; prioritizes commercial interests over environmental protection; dictates to governments on issues such as food safety and human health and safety; causes unemployment and widens the gap between rich and poor; is the tool of powerful lobbies; and is undemocratic. The WTO also identifies a common critique that small countries are powerless in the organization and that weaker countries are forced to become members.
- Adamantopoulos, Konstantinos, ed. An Anatomy of the World Trade Organization. London: Kluwer Law International, 1997. Fergusson, Ian. CRS Report for Congress—World Trade Organization Negotiations:The Doha Development Agenda. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, January 18, 2008, www. nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RL32060.pdf.
- Matsushita, Mitsuo,Thomas Schoenbaum, and Petro Mavroidis, eds. The World Trade Organization: Law, Practice, and Policy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- McLean, Iain. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Robertson, David. A Dictionary of Modern Politics. 3rd ed. London: Europa, 2002.
- Sampson, Gary, ed. The WTO and Global Governance Future Directions. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2009.
- World Trade Organization. www.wto.org.
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