There are a number of ways of looking at the
World Trade Organization. It is an organization for trade opening. It is a
forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements. It is a place for
them to settle trade disputes. It operates a system of trade rules.
Essentially, the WTO is a place where member governments try to sort out
the trade problems they face with each other.
The WTO was born out of negotiations, and everything the WTO does is the
result of negotiations. The bulk of the WTO’s current work comes from the
1986–94 negotiations called the Uruguay Round and earlier negotiations under
the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO is currently the
host to new negotiations, under the ‘Doha Development Agenda’ launched in
Where countries have faced trade barriers and wanted them lowered, the
negotiations have helped to open markets for trade. But the WTO is not just
about opening markets, and in some circumstances its rules support
maintaining trade barriers — for example, to protect consumers or prevent
the spread of disease.
At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of
the world’s trading nations. These documents provide the legal ground rules
for international commerce. They are essentially contracts, binding
governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits. Although
negotiated and signed by governments, the goal is to help producers of goods
and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, while
allowing governments to meet social and environmental objectives.
The system’s overriding purpose is to help trade flow as freely as possible
— so long as there are no undesirable side effects — because this is
important for economic development and well-being. That partly means
removing obstacles. It also means ensuring that individuals, companies and
governments know what the trade rules are around the world, and giving them
the confidence that there will be no sudden changes of policy. In other
words, the rules have to be ‘transparent’ and predictable.
Trade relations often involve conflicting interests. Agreements, including
those painstakingly negotiated in the WTO system, often need interpreting.
The most harmonious way to settle these differences is through some neutral
procedure based on an agreed legal foundation. That is the purpose behind
the dispute settlement process written into the WTO agreements.
Location: Geneva, Switzerland Established: 1 January 1995 Created
by: Uruguay Round negotiations (1986-94) Membership:
Budget: 196 million
Swiss francs for 2011 Secretariat
staff: 640 Head: Pascal Lamy (Director-General)
Administering WTO trade agreements
Forum for trade negotiations
Handling trade disputes
Monitoring national trade policies
Technical assistance and training for
Cooperation with other international