HANDBOOK ON ACCESSION TO THE WTO: CHAPTER 4
The accession process — the procedures and how they have been applied
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4.2 Application for membership and establishment of Working Party
First contacts back to top
Representatives of Governments interested in joining the organization often approach the Secretariat for information before making a formal application to accede. The contact point is the Director of the Accessions Division of the Secretariat.
It is also possible for non-governmental groups, including universities or journalists, to request information on accession from the Secretariat. The contact point for media, journalists and the general public is the Director of the Information and Media Relations Division. Intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and parliamentarians should contact the Director of the External Relations Division.
Observer status for non-Member governments before application to accede back to top
Non-member governments may become WTO observers before they make an application to accede. However, there is no obligation to do so and, increasingly, governments wanting to join the WTO have preferred to directly enter into the accession process instead of first seeking observer status.
The procedures for observer status for governments in the General Council and its subsidiary bodies make it clear that its purpose is “to allow a government to better acquaint itself with the WTO and its activities, and to prepare and initiate negotiations for accession to the WTO Agreement.”50 Under these procedures, communications from interested governments that have not yet applied to accede must “express an intent to initiate negotiations for accession to the WTO Agreement within a maximum period of five years, and to provide a description of their current economic and trade policies, as well as any intended future reforms of these policies”.51 The status is granted initially for five years and observer governments are expected to take a decision on accession within that period of time. It is however possible for an observer government that has not yet initiated a process of negotiation with a view to acceding to the WTO Agreement, to request an extension of its status as observer. Such a request shall be made in writing and shall be accompanied by a comprehensive, up-dated description of the requesting government’s “current economic and trade policies, as well as an indication of its future plans in relation to initiating accession negotiations”.52
Observer status in the General Council carries with it certain rights and obligations. Observer governments have the right to observe formal meetings of the General Council and its subsidiary bodies, including accession Working Parties (with the exception of the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration). Informal meetings, on the other hand, are held without observers in attendance. Observers have access to the main WTO document series and may also request technical assistance from the Secretariat in relation to the operation of the WTO system in general, as well as to negotiations on accession to the WTO Agreement.53
Representatives of governments accorded observer status “may be invited to speak at meetings of the bodies to which they are observers normally after Members of that body have spoken. The right to speak does not include the right to make proposals, unless a government is specifically invited to do so, nor to participate in decision-making”.54
Observers have an obligation to make a financial contribution for the services provided to them of 0.015 percent of the total WTO budget, which is the same as the minimum annual contribution made by the smallest WTO Members.55 This amounted to about SFr 26,000 for the year 2006 (about US $ 21,000; € 16,000).
Ten governments have been granted observer status under these procedures.56 One applied for an extension to the five-year period in the form prescribed by the Guidelines. The General Council noted that this was the first such request and agreed to its Chairman’s proposal to extend the period for a further five-year period.57
The General Council has on two occasions deferred consideration of such requests. In one case a Member needed additional time to examine the matter.58 In the other, the request was withdrawn shortly after its presentation when an application was made to accede to the WTO.59
In granting observer status in one case, the General Council took into account the applicant’s unique situation and agreed to waive the requirement concerning the intention to initiate accession negotiations, on the understanding that this did not constitute a precedent for future decisions on requests for observer status.60
Letter of application to the Director-General back to top
Once a government has decided that it wishes to apply for membership of the WTO, it submits a communication to the Director-General of the WTO indicating its desire to accede to the WTO under Article XII. This communication takes the form of a letter from the government of the applicant.
There is no prescribed form but the communication needs to indicate that the applicant wishes to accede under Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO. The following text is necessary and sufficient.
I have the honour to inform you of the wish of [applicant A] to accede to the Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization and to the Multilateral Trade Agreements annexed thereto, in accordance with Article XII of the said Agreement.
Of course applicants may wish to add further language. Some communications include a request that the application be circulated to all WTO Members and included for consideration on the agenda of an early future meeting of the WTO General Council.
The application is received by the Director-General and, in accordance with standard procedure, is circulated to all Members as the first in the series of formal documents relating to each accession.
50. The Guidelines for Observer Status for Governments in the WTO are annexed to the Rules of Procedure for Sessions of the Ministerial Conference and Meetings of the General Council. WTO documents WT/GC/M/1 and WT/L/161, Annex 2 of 25 July 1996. The Guidelines also provide that Governments may seek observer status in the Ministerial Conference by addressing a communication to that body indicating their reasons for seeking such
status and that such requests shall be examined on a case-by-case basis by the Ministerial Conference. These requests have normally been granted. Governments accorded observer status at sessions of the Ministerial Conference do not automatically have that status at meetings of the General Council or its subsidiary bodies, including accession Working Parties. However, governments accorded such status in the General Council and its subsidiary bodies in accordance with the relevant procedures are invited to attend sessions of the Ministerial Conference as observers. Guidelines, WTO document WT/L/161, Annex 2, para 2.
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51. Guidelines, WTO document WT/L/161, Annex 2, para 4. back to text
52. Guidelines, WTO document WT/L/161, Annex 2, para 8. back to text
53. Guidelines, WTO document WT/L/161, Annex 2, para 9. back to text
54. Guidelines, WTO document WT/L/161, Annex 2, para 10. back to text
55. Guidelines, WTO document WT/L/161, Annex 2, para 11. back to text
56. Oman, WTO document WT/GC/M/3; Georgia, WTO document WT/GC/M/12; Ethiopia, WTO document WT/GC/M/23; Cape Verde, WTO document WT/GC/M/26; Bhutan, WTO document WT/GC/M/28; Yemen, WTO document WT/GC/M/40; Bahamas, WTO document WT/GC/M/57; Sao Tome and Principe, WTO document WT/GC/M/63; Equatorial Guinea, WTO document WT/GC/M/74; and Iraq, WTO document WT/GC/M/85. back to text
57. Ethiopia, WTO documents WT/L/445 and WT/GC/M/74. back to text
58. Request from Liberia, WTO document WT/GC/M/57. back to text
59. The Lebanese Republic’s request for observer status, WTO documents WT/L/283 and WT/GC/M/32, withdrawn and replaced by request for accession, WTO documents WT/ACC/LBN/1 and WT/GC/M/40. back to text
60. Holy See, WTO document WT/GC/M/21. back to text