World Trade Organization

Location  Geneva, Switzerland
Established  1 January 1995
Created by  Uruguay Round Negotiations (1986-1994)
Membership  153 countries (on 23rd of July 2008)
Budget  185 million Swiss francs for 2008
2007 Secretariat staff  625
Head Director-General, Pascal Lamy

Administering WTO trade agreements - Forum for trade negotiations - Handling trade disputes - Monitoring national trade policies - Technical assistance and training for developing countries - Cooperation with other international organizations.

WTO in Brief:

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. Decisions in the WTO are typically 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 with 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.


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 programs

  • Cooperating with other international organizations


The WTO has 153 members, accounting for over 97% of world trade. Around 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, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (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 Good 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 WTO Secretariat, based in Geneva, has around 625 staff and is headed by a director general. It does not have branch offices outside Geneva. Since decisions are taken by the Members themselves, the Secretariat does not have the decision-making role that other international bureaucracies are given.

The Secretariat’s main duties are to supply technical support for the various 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.

The Secretariat also provides some forms of legal assistance in the dispute settlement process and advises governments wishing to become members of the WTO. The annual budget is roughly 185 million Swiss francs.

Dispute Settlement in WTO:

Dispute Settlement Body:

The DSB is, in effect, a session of the General Council of the WTO: that is, all of the representatives of the WTO member governments, usually at ambassadorial level, meeting together. It decides the outcome of a trade dispute on the recommendation of a Dispute Panel and (possibly) on a report from the Appellate Body of WTO, which may have amended the Panel recommendation if a party chose to appeal. Only the DSB can make these decisions: Panels and the Appellate Body are limited to making recommendations.

Administration as stated in the DSU:

1. The Dispute Settlement Body is established to administer the DSU rules and procedures and, except as otherwise provided in a covered agreement, the consultation and dispute settlement provisions of the covered agreements. Accordingly, the DSB shall have the authority to establish panels, adopt panel and Appellate Body reports, maintain surveillance of implementation of rulings and recommendations, and authorize suspension of concessions and other obligations under the covered agreements. With respect to disputes arising under a covered agreement which is a Plurilateral Trade Agreement. Only those Members that are parties to that Agreement may participate in decisions or actions taken by the DSB with respect to that dispute.

2. The DSB shall inform the relevant WTO Councils and Committees of any developments in disputes related to provisions of the respective covered agreements.

3. The DSB shall meet as often as necessary to carry out its functions within the time-frames provided in the Understanding.

4. Where the rules and procedures of the Understanding provide for the DSB to take a decision, it shall do so by consensus.

Principles: Equitable, fast, effective, mutually acceptable

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.

Typically, 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), then the case should take three months less.

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.



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