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WTO rules and practices for transparency and engagement with civil society organizations

In a rapidly changing trade environment, marked by economic slowdown and impasse in the Doha Round, the success of the WTO in promoting and legitimizing the rules-based multilateral trading system rests, to a large extent, on maintaining effective relations with civil society, including non-governmental organisations.

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This paper provides an overview of the WTO's rules and practices for transparency and engagement with NGOs. First, it looks at both internal and external transparency.  Second, it deals with how the WTO engages with civil society and illustrates how this has evolved over time.  Third, it looks at how NGOs and civil society contribute to the dispute settlement process.  In concluding, it explores whether there is scope for enhancing the WTO's current practices for engagement with NGOs, and if so how.  It also offers some suggestions on how NGOs can render the WTO more accountable to the public.

One area in which the WTO's practices for transparency and channels of engagement with civil society actors has evolved considerably is dispute settlement.  Although only WTO members can bring a dispute to the WTO, the practice of opening hearings to the public, upon the parties' request, and inviting contributions from non-members, including NGOs, shows to what extent WTO transparency and engagement with civil society have improved in recent times.  In particular, NGOs have assisted parties to a dispute prepare their briefs. This has included annexing studies to the parties's submissions, submitting amicus curiae briefs, and supporting the panel as experts under Article 13 of the WTO's Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU).

Forging links with civil society is a formidable task for any intergovernmental organization; at issue are the rights of governments to set WTO policy and the need to respect the voices of those without a vote.  Although the WTO's rules for engagement with civil society based on Article V:2 of the Marrakesh Agreement and further elaborated in the 1996 Guidelines have not been updated, the actual practices for engagement have evolved considerably over time and it is likely that they will continue to be improved upon in the future.

No: ERSD-2012-14


Maria Perez-Esteve, World Trade Organization


Manuscript date: September 2012

Key Words:

NGO's, WTO, Civil Society, Transparency

JEL classification numbers:

F1, F5, F6

Disclaimer  back to top

This is a working paper, and hence it represents research in progress. This paper represents the opinions of the author, and is the product of professional research. It is not meant to represent the position or opinions of the WTO or its Members, nor the official position of any staff members. Any errors are the fault of the author. Copies of working papers can be requested from the divisional secretariat by writing to: Economic Research and Statistics Division, World Trade Organization, Rue de Lausanne 154, CH 1211 Geneva 21, Switzerland. Please request papers by number and title.

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