In brief, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only international organization dealing with the global rules of trade. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.

“By lowering trade barriers through negotiations among member governments, the WTO’s system also breaks down other barriers between peoples and trading economies.

“The past 70 years have seen an exceptional growth in world trade. Merchandise exports have grown on average by 6% annually.

“Each member receives guarantees that its exports will be treated fairly and consistently in other members’ markets.


It all began with trade in goods. From 1947 to 1994, the GATT was the forum for negotiating lower tariffs and other trade barriers; the text of the GATT spelt out important rules, particularly non- discrimination. Since 1995, the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO and its annexes (including the updated GATT) has become the WTO’s umbrella agreement. It has annexes dealing with specific sectors relating to goods, such as agriculture, and with specific issues such as product standards, subsidies and actions taken against dumping. A recent significant addition was the Trade Facilitation Agreement, which entered into force in 2017.


Banks, insurance firms, telecommunications companies, tour operators, hotel chains and transport companies looking to do business abroad enjoy the same principles of more open trade that originally only applied to trade in goods. These principles appear in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). WTO members have also made individual commitments under the GATS stating which of their service sectors they are willing to open to foreign competition, and how open those markets are.

Intellectual property

The WTO’s Intellectual Property Agreement contains rules for trade in ideas and creativity. The rules state how copyrights, patents, trademarks, geographical names used to identify products, industrial designs and undisclosed information such as trade secrets – “intellectual property” – should be protected when trade is involved.

Dispute settlement

The WTO’s procedure for resolving trade conflicts under the Dispute Settlement Understanding is vital for enforcing the rules and therefore for ensuring that trade flows smoothly. Governments bring disputes to the WTO if they think their rights under the WTO agreements are being infringed. Judgements by specially appointed independent experts are based on interpretations of the agreements and individual members' commitments. The system encourages members to settle their differences through consultation with each other. If this proves to be unsuccessful, they can follow a stage- by-stage procedure that includes the possibility of a ruling by a panel of experts and the chance to appeal the ruling on legal grounds. Confidence in the system is borne out by the number of cases brought to the WTO – more than 500 cases since the WTO was established compared with the 300 disputes dealt with during the entire life of the GATT (1947-94).

Trade monitoring

The WTO's Trade Policy Review Mechanism is designed to improve transparency, to create a greater understanding of the trade policies adopted by WTO members and to assess their impact. Many members see the reviews as constructive feedback on their policies. All WTO members must undergo periodic scrutiny, each review containing reports by the member concerned and the WTO Secretariat. In addition, the WTO undertakes regular monitoring of global trade measures. Initially launched in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, this global trade monitoring exercise has become a regular function of the WTO, with the aim of highlighting WTO members' implementation of both trade- facilitating and trade-restricting measures.

“A WTO Committee on Trade and Development looks at developing economies’ special needs.

“The WTO has 164 members, accounting for 98% of world trade. A total of 25 countries are negotiating membership.

WTO Secretariat

The WTO Secretariat, based in Geneva, has around 620 staff and is headed by a Director- General. It does not have branch offices outside Geneva. Since decisions are taken by the WTO’s members, the Secretariat does not itself have a decision-making role.

The Secretariat’s main duties are to supply technical support for the various councils/ committees and the ministerial conferences, to provide technical assistance for developing economies, to analyse world trade and to explain WTO activities to the public and media.

The Secretariat also provides some forms of legal assistance in the dispute settlement process and advises governments wishing to become members of the WTO. The annual budget contributed by members is roughly 197 million Swiss francs.