Understanding the WTO

The first step is to talk. Essentially, the WTO is a place where member governments go, to try to sort out the trade problems they face with each other. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations. But the WTO is not just about liberalizing trade, and in some circumstances its rules support maintaining trade barriers — for example to protect consumers, prevent the spread of disease or protect the environment.

2017 WTO Chairs Programme Annual Conference held in Buenos Aires, Argentina


More introductory information


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The WTO was born out of negotiations; everything the WTO does is the result of negotiations.


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The agreements

The WTO is ‘rules-based’; its rules are negotiated agreements.


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Settling disputes

The priority is to settle disputes, not to pass judgement.


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Cross-cutting and new issues

Subjects that cut across the agreements, and some newer agenda items.

The WTO’s work is not confined to specific agreements with specific obligations. Member governments also discuss a range of other issues, usually in special committees or working groups. Some are old, some are new to the GATT-WTO system. Some are issues in their own right, some cut across several WTO topics. Some could lead to negotiations.

They include:


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The Doha agenda

The work programme lists 21 subjects.


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Developing countries

How the WTO deals with the special needs of an increasingly important group.


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The Organization

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


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A word of caution: the fine print

While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the texts in these introductory pages, they cannot be taken as an official legal interpretation of the agreements.

In addition, some simplifications are used in order to keep the text simple and clear.

In particular, the words “country” and “nation” are frequently used to describe WTO members, whereas a few members are officially “customs territories”, and not necessarily countries in the usual sense of the word (see list of members). The same applies when participants in trade negotiations are called “countries” or “nations”.

Where there is little risk of misunderstanding, the word “member” is dropped from “member countries (nations, governments)”, for example in the descriptions of the WTO agreements. Naturally, the agreements and commitments do not apply to non-members.

In some parts of the text, GATT is described as an “international organization”. The phrase reflects GATT’s de facto role before the WTO was created, and it is used simplistically here to help readers understand that role. As the text points out, this role was always ad hoc, without a proper legal foundation. International law did not recognize GATT as an organization.

For simplicity, the text uses the term “GATT members”. Officially, since GATT was a treaty and not a legally-established organization, GATT signatories were “contracting parties”.

And, for easier reading, article numbers in GATT and GATS have been translated from Roman numbers into European digits.


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