The meeting is at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center


Rules for growth and investment

Ministers at Seattle are expected to launch negotiations to further liberalize international trade in services. Governments are already mandated to start these negotiations in 2000 according to the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

The GATS is the first ever agreement of multilateral, legally-enforceable rules covering international trade in services. It was negotiated in the Uruguay Round. GATS has three elements: the main text containing general obligations and disciplines; annexes dealing with rules for specific sectors; and individual countries’ specific commitments to provide access to their markets, including indications of where countries are temporarily not applying the “most-favoured-nation” principle of non-discrimination. These commitments — like tariff schedules for trade in goods — are an integral part of the agreement. So are the temporary withdrawals of most-favoured-nation treatment.

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General obligations and disciplines   

Total coverage

The agreement covers all internationally-traded services — for example, banking, telecommunications, tourism, professional services, etc. The agreement also defines four ways of trading services:

  • services supplied from one country to another (e.g. international telephone calls), officially known as “cross-border supply”
  • consumers or firms making use of a service in another country (e.g. tourism), officially known as “consumption abroad”
  • a foreign company setting up subsidiaries or branches to provide services in another country (e.g. foreign banks setting up operations in a country), officially “commercial presence”
  • individuals travelling from their own country to supply services in another (e.g. fashion models or consultants), officially “presence of natural persons”

Most-favoured-nation (MFN) treatment

Favour one, favour all. MFN means treating one’s trading partners equally on the principle of non-discrimination. Under GATS, if a country allows foreign competition in a sector, equal opportunities in that sector should be given to service providers from all other WTO members. (This applies even if the country has made no specific commitment to provide foreign companies access to its markets under the WTO.)

MFN applies to all services, but some special temporary exemptions have been allowed. When GATS came into force, a number of countries already had preferential agreements in services that they had signed with trading partners, either bilaterally or in small groups. WTO members felt it was necessary to maintain these preferences temporarily. They gave themselves the right to continue giving more favourable treatment to particular countries in particular services activities by listing “MFN exemptions” alongside their first sets of commitments. In order to protect the general MFN principle, the exemptions could only be made once; nothing can be added to the lists. They will be reviewed in 2000, and will normally last no more than 10 years.

Commitments on market access and national treatment

Individual countries’ commitments to open markets in specific sectors — and how open those markets will be — are the outcome of negotiations. The commitments appear in “schedules” that list the sectors being opened, the extent of market access being given in those sectors (e.g. whether there are any restrictions on foreign ownership), and any limitations on national treatment (whether some rights granted to local companies will not be granted to foreign companies). So, for example, if a government commits itself to allow foreign banks to operate in its domestic market, that is a market access commitment. And if the government limits the number of licences it will issue, then that is a market access limitation. If it also says foreign banks are only allowed one branch while domestic banks are allowed numerous branches, that is an exception to the national treatment principle.

These clearly defined commitments are “bound”: like bound tariffs for trade in goods, they can only be modified after negotiations with affected countries. Because “unbinding” is difficult, the commitments are virtually guaranteed conditions for foreign exporters and importers of services and investors in the sector to do business.


GATS says governments must publish all relevant laws and regulations. Within two years (by the end of 1997) they have to set up inquiry points within their bureaucracies. Foreign companies and governments can then use these inquiry points to obtain information about regulations in any service sector. And they have to notify the WTO of any changes in regulations that apply to the services that come under specific commitments.

Regulations: objective and reasonable

Since domestic regulations are the most significant means of exercising influence or control over services trade, the agreement says governments should regulate services reasonably, objectively and impartially. When a government makes an administrative decisions that affect a service, it should also provide an impartial means for reviewing the decision (for example a tribunal).


When two (or more) governments have agreements recognizing each other’s qualifications (for example, the licensing or certification of service suppliers), GATS says other members must also be given a chance to negotiate comparable pacts. The recognition of other countries’ qualifications must not be discriminatory, and it must not amount to protectionism in disguise. These recognition agreements have to be notified to the WTO.

International payments and transfers

Once a government has made a commitment to open a service sector to foreign competition, it must not normally restrict money being transferred out of the country as payment for services supplied (“current transactions”) in that sector. The only exception is when there are balance-of-payments difficulties, and even then the restrictions must be temporary and subject to other limits and conditions.

Progressive liberalization

The Uruguay Round was only the beginning. GATS requires more negotiations, the first to begin within five years. The goal is to take the liberalization process further by increasing the level of commitments in schedules.

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The annexes: services are not all the same  

International trade in goods is a relatively simple idea to grasp: a product is transported from one country to another. Trade in services is much more diverse. Telephone companies, banks, airlines and accountancy firms provide their services in quite different ways. The GATS annexes reflect some of the diversity.

Movement of natural persons

This annex deals with negotiations on individuals’ rights to stay temporarily in a country for the purpose of providing a service. It specifies that the agreement does not apply to people seeking permanent employment or to conditions for obtaining citizenship, permanent residence or permanent employment.

Financial services

Instability in the banking system affects the whole economy. The financial services annex says governments have the right to take prudential measures, such as those for the protection of investors, depositors and insurance policy holders, and to ensure the integrity and stability of the financial system. It also excludes from the agreement services provided when a government exercising its authority over the financial system, for example central banks’ services. Negotiations on specific commitments in financial services continued after the end of the Uruguay Round and ended in late 1997.


The telecommunications sector has a dual role: it is a distinct sector of economic activity; and it is an underlying means of supplying other economic activities (for example electronic money transfers). The annex says governments must ensure that foreign service suppliers are given access to the public telecommunications networks without discrimination. Negotiations on specific commitments in telecommunications resumed after the end of the Uruguay Round. This led to a new liberalization package agreed in February 1997.

Air transport services

Under this annex, traffic rights and directly related activities are excluded from GATS’s coverage. They are handled by other bilateral agreements. However, the annex establishes that the GATS will apply to aircraft repair and maintenance services, marketing of air transport services and computer-reservation services.

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On-going work: even before the next round   

At the end of the Uruguay Round governments agreed to continue negotiations in four areas: basic telecommunications, maritime transport, movement of natural persons, and financial services. Some commitments in some of these sectors had been made in the Uruguay Round agreements. The objective of continuing with the negotiations was to improve the package.

Basic telecommunications

This was an area where governments did not offer commitments during the Uruguay Round — essentially because the privatization of government monopolies was a complex issues in many countries. Sophisticated value-added telecommunications services, which are more commonly provided on a private basis, were, however, included in many of the original GATS schedules. The negotiations on basic telecommunications ended in February 1997 with new national commitments due to take effect from January 1998.

Maritime transport

Maritime transport negotiations were originally scheduled to end in June 1996, but participants failed to agree on a package of commitments. The talks will resume with the new services round due to start no later than 2000. Some commitments are already included in some countries’ schedules covering the three main areas in this sector: access to and use of port facilities; auxiliary services; and ocean transport.

Movement of natural persons

“Movement of natural persons” refers to the entry and temporary stay of persons for the purpose of providing a service. It does not relate to persons seeking permanent employment or permanent residence in a country. Some commitments are already included in the schedules but it was agreed that negotiations to improve commitments would take place in the six months after the WTO came into force. These only achieved modest results.

Financial services

Financial services is another area where further negotiations were scheduled to improve on the commitments included in the initial Uruguay Round schedules. Officially the first set of talks ended in July 1995, but the governments decided that more could be achieved if further talks could be held. These latest negotiations ended in December 1997.

Other issues

GATS identifies several more issues for future negotiation. One set of negotiations would create rules that are not yet included in GATS: rules dealing with subsidies, government procurement and safeguard measures.

Another set of negotiations would seek rules on the requirements foreign service providers have to meet in order to operate in a market. The objective is to prevent these requirements being used as unnecessary barriers to trade. The focus is on: qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards and licensing requirements.

As part of this task, governments tackled the accountancy sector first. The result of these discussions emerged in December 1998 when the Services Council adopted disciplines on domestic regulations for the accountancy sector. The disciplines do not have legal effect yet. Governments are continuing their work to develop general disciplines for all professional services and, where necessary, additional sectoral disciplines. All the disciplines developed by the governments will be integrated into the GATS and become legally binding before the end of the forthcoming round of services negotiations.

After the Uruguay Round
GATS talks that resumed afer the round: a full new services round will start in 2000 at the latest.

Basic telecommunications
completed Feb 97

Financial services
completed late 97

Maritime transport

Movement of natural persons
completed Jul 95

Other issues for future negotiation:
subsidies, government procurement, safeguards, qualifications, technical standards, licensing