International standards and the WTO TBT Agreement: Improving governance for regulatory alignment

The WTO TBT Agreement obliges governments to use international standards as a basis for regulation, yet leaves a degree of flexibility with respect to the choice of standard, and the manner of its use. 

This interplay between obligation and flexibility has given rise to tension in various fora of the WTO, including in committee work, negotiations and dispute settlement.  This paper brings together these three distinct strands of WTO work to illustrate core aspects of the international standards debate at the WTO. In our analysis we first briefly outline the nature of the discipline in the TBT Agreement itself; next, we describe where and how the discussion arises in the WTO; and, finally, explore some implications of governance of international standard setting.  We propose that greater regulatory alignment could be achieved through a renewed focus on the procedures of setting international standards (the how), and greater emphasis on robust technical/scientific underpinnings of such standards (the what).


No: ERSD-2013-06


Erik Wijkström and Devin McDaniels, World Trade Organization

Manuscript date: April 2013

Key Words:

international trade, international standards, international cooperation, coherence, non-tariff barriers, technical barriers to trade, regulation

JEL classification numbers:

F13, F53, F55, K33, L15, L51

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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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