Whose WTO is it anyway?

The WTO is ‘member-driven’, with decisions taken by consensus among all member governments.


More introductory information
> The WTO in Brief

The WTO is run by its member governments. All major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, either by ministers (who meet at least once every two years) or by their ambassadors or delegates (who meet regularly in Geneva). Decisions are normally taken by consensus.

In this respect, the WTO is different from some other international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the WTO, power is not delegated to a board of directors or the organization’s head.

When WTO rules impose disciplines on countries’ policies, that is the outcome of negotiations among WTO members. The rules are enforced by the members themselves under agreed procedures that they negotiated, including the possibility of trade sanctions. But those sanctions are imposed by member countries, and authorized by the membership as a whole. This is quite different from other agencies whose bureaucracies can, for example, influence a country’s policy by threatening to withhold credit.

Reaching decisions by consensus among some 150 members can be difficult. Its main advantage is that decisions made this way are more acceptable to all members. And despite the difficulty, some remarkable agreements have been reached. Nevertheless, proposals for the creation of a smaller executive body — perhaps like a board of directors each representing different groups of countries — are heard periodically. But for now, the WTO is a member-driven, consensus-based organization.


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Highest authority: the Ministerial Conference

So, the WTO belongs to its members. The countries make their decisions through various councils and committees, whose membership consists of all WTO members. Topmost is the ministerial conference which has to meet at least once every two years. The Ministerial Conference can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements.

> more on Ministerial Conferences


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Second level: General Council in three guises

Day-to-day work in between the ministerial conferences is handled by three bodies:

 The General Council
 The Dispute Settlement Body
 The Trade Policy Review Body

All three are in fact the same — the Agreement Establishing the WTO states they are all the General Council, although they meet under different terms of reference. Again, all three consist of all WTO members. They report to the Ministerial Conference.

The General Council acts on behalf of the Ministerial Conference on all WTO affairs. It meets as the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body to oversee procedures for settling disputes between members and to analyse members’ trade policies.

> more on General Council


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Third level: councils for each broad area of trade, and more

Three more councils, each handling a different broad area of trade, report to the General Council:

 The Council for Trade in Goods (Goods Council)
 The Council for Trade in Services (Services Council)
 The Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Council)

As their names indicate, the three are responsible for the workings of the WTO agreements dealing with their respective areas of trade. Again they consist of all WTO members. The three also have subsidiary bodies (see below).

Six other bodies report to the General Council. The scope of their coverage is smaller, so they are “committees”. But they still consist of all WTO members. They cover issues such as trade and development, the environment, regional trading arrangements, and administrative issues. The Singapore Ministerial Conference in December 1996 decided to create new working groups to look at investment and competition policy, transparency in government procurement, and trade facilitation.

Two more subsidiary bodies dealing with the plurilateral agreements (which are not signed by all WTO members) keep the General Council informed of their activities regularly.


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Fourth level: down to the nitty-gritty

Each of the higher level councils has subsidiary bodies. The Goods Council has 11 committees dealing with specific subjects (such as agriculture, market access, subsidies, anti-dumping measures and so on). Again, these consist of all member countries. Also reporting to the Goods Council is the Textiles Monitoring Body, which consists of a chairman and 10 members acting in their personal capacities, and groups dealing with notifications (governments informing the WTO about current and new policies or measures) and state trading enterprises.

The Services Council’s subsidiary bodies deal with financial services, domestic regulations, GATS rules and specific commitments.

At the General Council level, the Dispute Settlement Body also has two subsidiaries: the dispute settlement “panels” of experts appointed to adjudicate on unresolved disputes, and the Appellate Body that deals with appeals.


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‘HODs’ and other bods: the need for informality

Important breakthroughs are rarely made in formal meetings of these bodies, least of all in the higher level councils. Since decisions are made by consensus, without voting, informal consultations within the WTO play a vital role in bringing a vastly diverse membership round to an agreement.

One step away from the formal meetings are informal meetings that still include the full membership, such as those of the Heads of Delegations (HOD). More difficult issues have to be thrashed out in smaller groups. A common recent practice is for the chairperson of a negotiating group to attempt to forge a compromise by holding consultations with delegations individually, in twos or threes, or in groups of 20-30 of the most interested delegations.

These smaller meetings have to be handled sensitively. The key is to ensure that everyone is kept informed about what is going on (the process must be “transparent”) even if they are not in a particular consultation or meeting, and that they have an opportunity to participate or provide input (it must be “inclusive”).

One term has become controversial, but more among some outside observers than among delegations. The “Green Room” is a phrase taken from the informal name of the director-general’s conference room. It is used to refer to meetings of 20–40 delegations, usually at the level of heads of delegations. These meetings can take place elsewhere, such as at Ministerial Conferences, and can be called by the minister chairing the conference as well as the director-general. Similar smaller group consultations can be organized by the chairs of committees negotiating individual subjects, although the term Green Room is not usually used for these.

In the past delegations have sometimes felt that Green Room meetings could lead to compromises being struck behind their backs. So, extra efforts are made to ensure that the process is handled correctly, with regular reports back to the full membership.

The way countries now negotiate has helped somewhat. In order to increase their bargaining power, countries have formed coalitions. In some subjects such as agriculture virtually all countries are members of at least one coalition — and in many cases, several coalitions. This means that all countries can be represented in the process if the coordinators and other key players are present. The coordinators also take responsibility for both “transparency” and “inclusiveness” by keeping their coalitions informed and by taking the positions negotiated within their alliances.

In the end, decisions have to be taken by all members and by consensus. The membership as a whole would resist attempts to impose the will of a small group. No one has been able to find an alternative way of achieving consensus on difficult issues, because it is virtually impossible for members to change their positions voluntarily in meetings of the full membership.

Market access negotiations also involve small groups, but for a completely different reason. The final outcome is a multilateral package of individual countries’ commitments, but those commitments are the result of numerous bilateral, informal bargaining sessions, which depend on individual countries’ interests. (Examples include the traditional tariff negotiations, and market access talks in services.)

So, informal consultations in various forms play a vital role in allowing consensus to be reached, but they do not appear in organization charts, precisely because they are informal.

They are not separate from the formal meetings, however. They are necessary for making formal decisions in the councils and committees. Nor are the formal meetings unimportant. They are the forums for exchanging views, putting countries’ positions on the record, and ultimately for confirming decisions. The art of achieving agreement among all WTO members is to strike an appropriate balance, so that a breakthrough achieved among only a few countries can be acceptable to the rest of the membership.

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Alternative View

‘...The WTO will likely suffer from slow and cumbersome policy-making and management — an organization with more than 120 member countries cannot be run by a “committee of the whole”. Mass management simply does not lend itself to operational efficiency or serious policy discussion.

Both the IMF and the World Bank have an executive board to direct the executive officers of the organization, with permanent participation by the major industrial countries and weighted voting. The WTO will require a comparable structure to operate efficiently. ... [But] the political orientation of smaller ... members remains strongly opposed.’

   Jeffrey J Schott
  Institute for International Economics, Washington


Voting is possible, too

The WTO continues GATT’s tradition of making decisions not by voting but by consensus. This allows all members to ensure their interests are properly considered even though, on occasion, they may decide to join a consensus in the overall interests of the multilateral trading system.

Where consensus is not possible, the WTO agreement allows for voting — a vote being won with a majority of the votes cast and on the basis of “one country, one vote”.

The WTO Agreement envisages four specific situations involving voting:

An interpretation of any of the multilateral trade agreements can be adopted by a majority of three quarters of WTO members.

The Ministerial Conference can waive an obligation imposed on a particular member by a multilateral agreement, also through a three-quarters majority.

Decisions to amend provisions of the multilateral agreements can be adopted through approval either by all members or by a two-thirds majority depending on the nature of the provision concerned. But the amendments only take effect for those WTO members which accept them.

A decision to admit a new member is taken by a two-thirds majority in the Ministerial Conference, or the General Council in between conferences.



Goods Council’s committees

Market access
Sanitary and phytosanitary measures
Textiles Monitoring Body
Technical barriers to trade
Subsidies and countervail
Customs valuation
Rules of origin
Import licensing
Investment measures
State trading (working party)




Same people, different hats?

No, not exactly.

Formally, all of these councils and committees consist of the full membership of the WTO. But that does not mean they are the same, or that the distinctions are purely bureaucratic.

In practice the people participating in the various councils and committees are different because different levels of seniority and different areas of expertise are needed.

Heads of missions in Geneva (usually ambassadors) normally represent their countries at the General Council level. Some of the committees can be highly specialised and sometimes governments send expert officials from their capital cities to participate in these meetings.

Even at the level of the Goods, Services and TRIPS councils, many delegations assign different officials to cover the different meetings.

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