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Briefing note: Transparency in trade in services

WTO members are divided on the question of whether transparency in trade in services could be among the potential deliverables of the WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, on 15-18 December. These divisions were underscored at meetings of the Services Council on 9 October and of the Working Party on Domestic Regulation on 15 October


Updated: November 2015

THIS EXPLANATION is designed to help the public understand developments in the WTO. While every effort has been made to ensure the contents are accurate, it does not prejudice member governments’ positions.

Some members called for the start of text-based negotiations based on proposals on transparency in domestic regulation reflected in past Chairman texts, such as disciplines on the detailed publication of regulatory measures, the establishment of  mechanisms to respond to requests for information by service suppliers, and publication of draft regulations to facilitate comments of service suppliers. Some delegations stressed the importance of including a services component in any package in Nairobi. These members also expressed readiness to explore appropriate development components.

Others said they were not ready, as developing countries, to take on new obligations for domestic regulation in the services sector. They also expressed concern that a selective focus on "transparency" in the services negotiations would undermine the development dimension of the Doha Round, including efforts to improve the capacity of developing countries to trade effectively in commercial services. Development, these delegates pointed out, is a cross-cutting issue across all negotiating pillars.

Read the briefing note on least-developed countries (LDC) issues.

The WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) — a result of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations — defines standards of transparency. It also establishes a framework to specify WTO members’ trade obligations in services, which they have laid down in their respective schedules of specific commitments.

The GATS also commits members to enter into successive rounds of negotiations to progressively increase the level of liberalization in their specific commitments. In addition, the GATS commits members to negotiate in four rule-making areas (domestic regulation, emergency safeguards, government procurement and subsidies) not currently addressed under the GATS.

Since the Doha Round, the focus of the services negotiations launched in 2000 is on widening and deepening current trading conditions in services while respecting members’ right to regulate according to their national policy objectives. It is for each government to decide on which sectors and to what extent it is ready to commit to market access.

  • The Working Party on Domestic Regulation is mandated to develop disciplines to help prevent governments’ regulating measures — such as licensing, qualification requirements, procedures, and technical standards — from unnecessarily restricting trade. 
  • The Working Party on GATS Rules deals with the rule-making areas cited above.

Outside the WTO, a group of members are negotiating a Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). The stated objective is to achieve an ambitious outcome, compatible with the GATS, that would attract broad participation and that could later be multilateralized. The Trade in Services Council, the body overseeing the operation of the GATS and ongoing developments in services trade, is being kept regularly informed of this initiative.

Jargon buster

Domestic regulation: Regulating measures taken by governments, such as licensing, qualification requirements, procedures and technical standards affecting trade in services. The GATS mandates WTO members to ensure that the measures covering sectors where specific commitments are undertaken do not unnecessarily restrict trade. 

Transparency: Degree to which trade policies and practices, and the process by which they are established, are open and predictable.

Uruguay Round: Multilateral trade negotiations launched at Punta del Este, Uruguay, in September 1986 and concluded in Geneva in December 1993. Signed by ministers in Marrakesh, Morocco, in April 1994.

Schedule: In general, a WTO member’s list of commitments on market access (bound tariff rates, access to services markets). Goods schedules can include commitments on agricultural subsidies and domestic support. Services commitments include bindings on national treatment. Also: “schedule of concessions”, “schedule of specific commitments”.

Delegation: Each WTO member is represented by a number of delegates who attend WTO meetings. This number varies from one member to another. Some members are based in Geneva, others do not have the resources to have an office in Geneva.