Introduction to the WTO dispute settlement system

Click the + to open an item.

1.3 Functions, objectives and key features of the dispute settlement system

show help page

Providing security and predictability to the multilateral trading system

A central objective of the (WTO) dispute settlement system is to provide security and predictability to the multilateral trading system (Article 3.2 of the DSU). Although international trade is understood in the WTO as the flow of goods and services between Members, such trade is typically not conducted by States, but rather by private economic operators. These market participants need stability and predictability in the government laws, rules and regulations applying to their commercial activity, especially when they conduct trade on the basis of long-term transactions. In light of this, the DSU aims to provide a fast, efficient, dependable and rule-oriented system to resolve disputes about the application of the provisions of the WTO Agreement. By reinforcing the rule of law, the dispute settlement system makes the trading system more secure and predictable. Where non-compliance with the WTO Agreement has been alleged by a WTO Member, the dispute settlement system provides for a relatively rapid resolution of the matter through an independent ruling that must be implemented promptly, or the non-implementing Member will face possible trade sanctions.


Preserving the rights and obligations of WTO Members  back to top

Typically, a dispute arises when one WTO Member adopts a trade policy measure that one or more other Members consider to be inconsistent with the obligations set out in the WTO Agreement. In such a case, any Member that feels aggrieved is entitled to invoke the procedures and provisions of the dispute settlement system in order to challenge that measure.

If the parties to the dispute do not manage to reach a mutually agreed solution, the complainant is guaranteed a rules-based procedure in which the merits of its claims will be examined by an independent body (panels and the Appellate Body). If the complainant prevails, the desired outcome is to secure the withdrawal of the measure found to be inconsistent with the WTO Agreement. Compensation and countermeasures (the suspension of obligations) are available only as secondary and temporary responses to a contravention of the WTO Agreement (Article 3.7 of the DSU).

Thus, the dispute settlement system provides a mechanism through which WTO Members can ensure that their rights under the WTO Agreement can be enforced. This system is equally important from the perspective of the respondent whose measure is under challenge, since it provides a forum for the respondent to defend itself if it disagrees with the claims raised by the complainant. In this way, the dispute settlement system serves to preserve the Members’ rights and obligations under the WTO Agreement (Article 3.2 of the DSU). The rulings of the bodies involved (the DSB the Appellate Body, panels and arbitrations1) are intended to reflect and correctly apply the rights and obligations as they are set out in the WTO Agreement. They must not change the WTO law that is applicable between the parties or, in the words of the DSU, add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in the WTO Agreements (Articles 3.2 and 19.2 of the DSU).



1. The composition and tasks of these bodies will be explained in the sections on 3.1 The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), Panels and the Appellate Bodyback to text



show previous page show next page

This interactive training module is based on the “Handbook on the WTO Dispute Settlement System” published in 2004. The second edition of this handbook published in 2017 can be found at here.


Chapters done:

show previous page show next page