Non-tariff barriers: red tape, etc

A number of agreements deal with various bureaucratic or legal issues that could involve hindrances to trade.

import licensing
rules for the valuation of goods at customs
preshipment inspection: further checks on imports
rules of origin: made in ... where?
investment measures


More introductory information
> The WTO in Brief

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Import licensing: keeping procedures clear

Although less widely used now than in the past, import licensing systems are subject to disciplines in the WTO. The Agreement on Import Licensing Procedures says import licensing should be simple, transparent and predictable. For example, the agreement requires governments to publish sufficient information for traders to know how and why the licences are granted. It also describes how countries should notify the WTO when they introduce new import licensing procedures or change existing procedures. The agreement offers guidance on how governments should assess applications for licences.

Some licences are issued automatically if certain conditions are met. The agreement sets criteria for automatic licensing so that the procedures used do not restrict trade.

Other licences are not issued automatically. Here, the agreement tries to minimize the importers’ burden in applying for licences, so that the administrative work does not in itself restrict or distort imports. The agreement says the agencies handling licensing should not normally take more than 30 days to deal with an application — 60 days when all applications are considered at the same time.

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Rules for the valuation of goods at customs

For importers, the process of estimating the value of a product at customs presents problems that can be just as serious as the actual duty rate charged. The WTO agreement on customs valuation aims for a fair, uniform and neutral system for the valuation of goods for customs purposes — a system that conforms to commercial realities, and which outlaws the use of arbitrary or fictitious customs values. The agreement provides a set of valuation rules, expanding and giving greater precision to the provisions on customs valuation in the original GATT.

A related Uruguay Round ministerial decision gives customs administrations the right to request further information in cases where they have reason to doubt the accuracy of the declared value of imported goods. If the administration maintains a reasonable doubt, despite any additional information, it may be deemed that the customs value of the imported goods cannot be determined on the basis of the declared value.

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Preshipment inspection: a further check on imports

Preshipment inspection is the practice of employing specialized private companies (or “independent entities”) to check shipment details — essentially price, quantity and quality — of goods ordered overseas. Used by governments of developing countries, the purpose is to safeguard national financial interests (preventing capital flight, commercial fraud, and customs duty evasion, for instance) and to compensate for inadequacies in administrative infrastructures.

The Preshipment Inspection Agreement recognizes that GATT principles and obligations apply to the activities of preshipment inspection agencies mandated by governments. The obligations placed on governments which use preshipment inspections include non-discrimination, transparency, protection of confidential business information, avoiding unreasonable delay, the use of specific guidelines for conducting price verification and avoiding conflicts of interest by the inspection agencies. The obligations of exporting members towards countries using preshipment inspection include non-discrimination in the application of domestic laws and regulations, prompt publication of those laws and regulations and the provision of technical assistance where requested.

The agreement establishes an independent review procedure. This is administered jointly by the International Federation of Inspection Agencies (IFIA), representing inspection agencies, and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), representing exporters. Its purpose is to resolve disputes between an exporter and an inspection agency.


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Rules of origin: made in ... where?

“Rules of origin” are the criteria used to define where a product was made. They are an essential part of trade rules because a number of policies discriminate between exporting countries: quotas, preferential tariffs, anti-dumping actions, countervailing duty (charged to counter export subsidies), and more. Rules of origin are also used to compile trade statistics, and for “made in ...” labels that are attached to products. This is complicated by globalization and the way a product can be processed in several countries before it is ready for the market.

The Rules of Origin Agreement requires WTO members to ensure that their rules of origin are transparent; that they do not have restricting, distorting or disruptive effects on international trade; that they are administered in a consistent, uniform, impartial and reasonable manner; and that they are based on a positive standard (in other words, they should state what does confer origin rather than what does not).

For the longer term, the agreement aims for common (“harmonized”) rules of origin among all WTO members, except in some kinds of preferential trade — for example, countries setting up a free trade area are allowed to use different rules of origin for products traded under their free trade agreement. The agreement establishes a harmonization work programme, based upon a set of principles, including making rules of origin objective, understandable and predictable. The work was due to end in July 1998, but several deadlines have been missed. It is being conducted by a Committee on Rules of Origin in the WTO and a Technical Committee under the auspices of the World Customs Organization in Brussels. The outcome will be a single set of rules of origin to be applied under non-preferential trading conditions by all WTO members in all circumstances.

An annex to the agreement sets out a “common declaration” dealing with the operation of rules of origin on goods which qualify for preferential treatment.

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Investment measures: reducing trade distortions

The Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) Agreement applies only to measures that affect trade in goods. It recognizes that certain measures can restrict and distort trade, and states that no member shall apply any measure that discriminates against foreigners or foreign products (i.e. violates “national treatment” principles in GATT). It also outlaws investment measures that lead to restrictions in quantities (violating another principle in GATT). An illustrative list of TRIMs agreed to be inconsistent with these GATT articles is appended to the agreement. The list includes measures which require particular levels of local procurement by an enterprise (“local content requirements”). It also discourages measures which limit a company’s imports or set targets for the company to export (“trade balancing requirements”).

Under the agreement, countries must inform fellow-members through the WTO of all investment measures that do not conform with the agreement. Developed countries had to eliminate these in two years (by the end of 1996); developing countries had five years (to the end of 1999); and least-developed countries seven. In July 2001, the Goods Council agreed to extend this transition period for a number of requesting developing countries.

The agreement establishes a Committee on TRIMs to monitor the implementation of these commitments. The agreement also says that WTO members should consider, by 1 January 2000, whether there should also be provisions on investment policy and competition policy. This discussion is now part of the Doha Development Agenda.

> more on investment

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