The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is an international organisation which sets the rules for global trade. This organisation was set up in 1995 as the successor of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). It has 153 members. All decisions are taken unanimously but the major economic powers such as the US, EU and Japan has managed to use the WTO to frame rules of trade to advance their own interests. The developing countries often complain of non-transparent procedures and being pushed around by big powers.
Structure of WTO:
The basic structure of the WTO includes the following bodies:
• The Ministerial Conference, which is composed of international trade ministers from all member countries. This is the governing body of the WTO, responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization and making all final decisions on agreements under its wings.
• The General Council composed of senior representatives (usually ambassador level) of all members. It is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day business and management of the WTO, and is based at the WTO headquarters in Geneva. In practice, this is the key decision-making arm of the WTO for most issues. Several of the bodies described below report directly to the General Council.
• The Trade Policy Review Body is also composed of all the WTO members, and oversees the Trade Policy Review Mechanism, a product of the Uruguay Round. It periodically reviews the trade policies and practices of all member states.
• The Dispute Settlement Body is also composed of all the WTO members. It oversees the implementation and effectiveness of the dispute resolution process for all WTO agreements, and the implementation of the decisions on WTO disputes.
• The Councils on Trade in Goods and Trade in Services operate under the mandate of the General Council and are composed of all members. They provide a mechanism to oversee the details of the general and specific agreements on trade in goods (such as those on textiles and agriculture) and trade in services.
• The Secretariat and Director General of the WTO resides in Geneva, in the old home of GATT. The Secretariat now numbers just under 550 people, and undertakes the administrative functions of running all aspects of the organization. The Secretariat has no legal decision-making powers but provides vital services, and often advice, to those who do.
• The Committee on Trade and Development:
Committee on Trade and Environment are two of the several committees continued or established under the Marrakech Agreement in 1994. They have specific mandates to focus on these relationships, which are especially relevant to how the WTO deals with sustainable development issues.
Objectives of WTO
The WTO agreements are lengthy and complex because they are legal texts covering a wide range of activities. But a number of simple, fundamental principles run throughout all of these documents. These principles are the foundation of the multilateral trading system.
• A country should not discriminate between its trading partners and it should not discriminate between its own and foreign products, services or nationals.
• Lowering trade barriers is one of the most obvious ways of encouraging trade; these barriers include customs duties (or tariffs) and measure such as import bans or quotas, anti dumping duty that restrict quantities selectively.
• Foreign companies, investors and governments should be confident that trade barriers should not be raised arbitrarily. With stability and predictability, investment is encouraged, jobs are created and consumers can fully enjoy the benefits of competition — choice and lower prices.
• Discouraging ‘unfair’ practices, such as export subsidies and dumping products at below cost to gain market share; the issues are complex, and the rules try to establish what is fair or unfair, and how governments can respond, in particular by charging additional import duties calculated to compensate for damage caused by unfair trade.
• 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.
Functions of WTO
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.
• Trade negotiations: 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.
• Dispute settlement: 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.
• 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.
• Outreach: 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.