Relations with Non-Governmental Organizations/Civil Society

Although NGOs have been interested in the GATT since its inception in 1947, the period since the creation of the WTO has vividly demonstrated that the multilateral trading system is being scrutinized by public opinion like never before.

When Ministers adopted the Marrakesh Agreement they also decided to include a specific reference to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Article V:2. On 18 July 1996 the General Council further clarified the framework for relations with NGOs by adopting a set of guidelines (WT/L/162) which "recognizes the role NGOs can play to increase the awareness of the public in respect of WTO activities". These guidelines are instrumental for both Members and the WTO Secretariat in maintaining an informal and positive dialogue with the various components of civil society. Since 1996 arrangements for NGOs have essentially focused on attendance at Ministerial Conferences, participation in issue-specific symposia, and the day-to-day contact between the WTO Secretariat and NGOs. More recently, the Director-General has announced a number of new initiatives designed to improve the dialogue with civil society.

Ministerial Conferences Back to top

Immediately after adopting the guidelines for relations with NGOs WTO Members agreed on procedures for such organizations to attend the Singapore Ministerial Conference. Hence, it was decided that (i) NGOs would be allowed to attend the Plenary Sessions of the Conference and (ii) NGO applications to register would be accepted by the WTO Secretariat on the basis of Article V:2, i.e. NGOs had to demonstrate that their activities were "concerned with matters related to those of the WTO".

The Singapore Ministerial Conference in December 1996 represented the first experience with NGO attendance at a major WTO meeting. In total 159 NGOs registered to attend the first Ministerial Conference of the WTO. The 108 NGOs (235 individuals) that made it to Singapore included representatives from environment, development, consumer, business, trade union and farmer interests. The NGO Centre in Singapore provided the NGOs with a large number of meeting rooms, computer facilities and documentation from the official event.

The Geneva Ministerial Conference and 50th Year Celebration of the multilateral trading system in many ways epitomised the evolving relationship with NGOs and underlined the growing interest of civil society in the work of the WTO. 152 NGOs registered for the Geneva event. In the end a total of 128 NGOs (362 individuals) came to the second Ministerial of the WTO. The NGO Centre, several meeting rooms and a computer facility were also reserved for NGOs in the Palais des Nations. Throughout the three-day-event NGOs were briefed regularly by the WTO Secretariat on the progress of the informal working sessions – a feature which was welcomed by NGOs as a genuine sign of commitment to ensure transparency and the recognition of civil society as an entity which deserves attention in its own right.

Symposia Back to top

Since 1996 a number of symposia have been arranged by the Secretariat for NGOs on specific issues of interest to civil society, i.e. three on trade and the environment, one on trade and development and one on trade facilitation. These symposia have provided, on an informal basis, the opportunity for NGOs to discuss specific issues with representatives of WTO Member countries.

Day-to-day Contact Back to top

The WTO Secretariat receives a large number of requests per day from NGOs from all over the world and Secretariat staff meets with NGOs on a regular basis - both individually and as a part of NGO organized events.

New Initiatives Back to top

During the General Council on 15 July 1998 the Director-General informed Members of certain new steps he was taking to enhance the dialogue with civil society. Beginning in the autumn of 1998 the WTO Secretariat will provide regular briefings for NGOs and will establish a special NGO Section on the WTO web site with specific information for civil society, e.g. announcements of registration deadlines for ministerial meetings and symposia. In addition, a monthly list of NGO position papers received by the Secretariat will be compiled and circulated for the information of Members.