Technical Information on Rules of Origin

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Rules of origin are the criteria needed to determine the national source of a product. Their importance is derived from the fact that duties and restrictions in several cases depend upon the source of imports.

There is wide variation in the practice of governments with regard to the rules of origin. While the requirement of substantial transformation is universally recognized, some governments apply the criterion of change of tariff classification, others the ad valorem percentage criterion and yet others the criterion of manufacturing or processing operation. In a globalizing world it has become even more important that a degree of harmonization is achieved in these practices of Members in implementing such a requirement.


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Where are rules of origin used? 

Rules of origin are used:

— to implement measures and instruments of commercial policy such as anti-dumping duties and safeguard measures;

— to determine whether imported products shall receive most-favoured-nation (MFN) treatment or preferential treatment;

— for the purpose of trade statistics;

— for the application of labelling and marking requirements; and

— for government procurement.


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No specific provision in GATT 

GATT has no specific rules governing the determination of the country of origin of goods in international commerce. Each contracting party was free to determine its own origin rules, and could even maintain several different rules of origin depending on the purpose of the particular regulation. The draftsmen of the General Agreement stated that the rules of origin should be left:

“...within the province of each importing country to determine, in accordance with the provisions of its law, for the purpose of applying the most-favoured-nation provisions (and for other GATT purposes), whether goods do in fact originate in a particular country”.

Article VIII:1(c) of the General Agreement, dealing with fees and formalities connected with importation and exportation, states that “the contracting parties also recognize the need for minimizing the incidence and complexity of import and export formalities and for decreasing and simplifying import and export documentation requirements” and the Interpretative Note 2 to this Article states that it would be consistent if, “on the importation of products from the territory of a contracting party into the territory of another contracting party, the production of certificates of origin should only be required to the extent that is strictly indispensable”.


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Interest in the harmonization of rules of origin 

It is accepted by all countries that harmonization of rules of origin i.e., the definition of rules of origin that will be applied by all countries and that will be the same whatever the purpose for which they are applied - would facilitate the flow of international trade. In fact, misuse of rules of origin may transform them into a trade policy instrument per se instead of just acting as a device to support a trade policy instrument. Given the variety of rules of origin, however, such harmonization is a complex exercise.

In 1981, the GATT Secretariat prepared a note on rules of origin and, in November 1982, Ministers agreed to study the rules of origin used by GATT Contracting Parties. Not much more work was done on rules of origin until well into the Uruguay Round negotiations. In the late 1980s developments in three important areas served to focus more attention on the problems posed by rules of origin:

Increased number of preferential trading arrangements

First, an increased use of preferential trading arrangements, including regional arrangements, with their various rules of origin;

Increase in the number of origin disputes

Second, an increased number of origin disputes growing out of quota arrangements such as the Multifibre Arrangement and the “voluntary” steel export restraints; and

Increased use of anti-dumping laws

Lastly, an increased use of anti-dumping laws, and subsequent claims of circumvention of anti-dumping duties through the use of third country facilities.


The UR Agreement

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The increased number and importance of rules of origin led the Uruguay Round negotiators to tackle the issue during the negotiations.


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Aims of the Agreement 


The Agreement on Rules of Origin aims at harmonization of non-preferential rules of origin, and to ensure that such rules do not themselves create unnecessary obstacles to trade. The Agreement sets out a work programme for the harmonization of rules of origin to be undertaken after the entry into force of the World Trade Organization (WTO), in conjunction with the World Customs Organization (WCO).

General principles

Until the completion of the three-year harmonization work programme, Members are expected to ensure that their rules or origin are transparent; that they are administered in a consistent, uniform, impartial and reasonable manner; and that they are based on a positive standard.


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Coverage: all non-preferential rules of origin 

Article 1 of the Agreement defines rules of origin as those laws, regulations and administrative determinations of general application applied to determine the country of origin of goods except those related to the granting of tariff preferences. Thus, the Agreement covers only rules of origin used in non-preferential commercial policy instruments, such as MFN treatment, anti-dumping and countervailing duties, safeguard measures, origin marking requirements and any discriminatory quantitative restrictions or tariff quotas, as well as those used for trade statistics and government procurement. It is, however, provided that the determinations made for purposes of defining domestic industry or “like products of domestic industry” shall not be affected by the Agreement.


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WTO Committee on Rules of Origin

The Agreement establishes a Committee on Rules of Origin within the framework of the WTO, open to all WTO Members. It is to meet at least once a year and is to review the implementation and operation of the Agreements (Article 4:1).

WCO Technical Committee

A Technical Committee on Rules of Origin is created under the auspices of the World Customs Organization (formerly the Customs Cooperation Council). Its main functions are (a) to carry out the harmonization work; and (b) to deal with any matter concerning technical problems related to rules of origin. It is to meet at least once a year. Membership is open to all WTO Members; other WCO members and the WTO Secretariat may attend as observers (Article 4:2 and Annex I).


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The Harmonization Work Programme (HWP) 

Article 9:2 provided that the HWP be completed within three years of initiation. Its agreed deadline was July 1998. While substantial progress was made in that time in the implementation of the HWP, it could not be completed due to the complexity of issues. In July 1998 the General Council approved a decision whereby Members have committed themselves to make their best endeavours to complete the Programme by a new target date, November 1999.

The work is being conducted both in the WTO Committee on Rules of Origin (CRO) in Geneva and in the WCO Technical Committee (TCRO) in Brussels. The TCRO is to work, on a product-sector basis of the HS nomenclature, on the following matters:

Definitions of goods being wholly obtained

To provide harmonized definitions of the goods that are to be considered as being wholly obtained in one country, and of minimal operations or processes that do not by themselves confer origin to a good;

Last substantial transformation

Change of tariff heading

To elaborate, on the bases of the criteria of substantial transformation, the use of the change of tariff classification when developing harmonized rules of origin for particular products or sectors, including the minimum change within the nomenclature that meets this criterion.

Supplementary criteria

To elaborate supplementary criteria, on the basis of the criterion of substantial transformation, in a manner supplementary or exclusive of other requirements, such as ad valorem percentages (with the indication of its method of calculation) or processing operations (with the precise specification of the operation).

The CRO considers the input of the TCRO with the aim of endorsing the TCRO's interpretations and opinions, and, if necessary, refining or elaborating on the work of the TCRO and/or developing new approaches. Upon completion of all the work in the TCRO, the CRO is to consider the results in terms of their overall coherence (Article 9:3).


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Overall architectural design 

The CRO and the TCRO have established an overall architectural design within which the harmonization work programme is to be finalized. This encompasses

— general rules, laid down in eight Articles provisionally entitled: Scope of Application; the Harmonized System; Definitions; Determination of Origin; Residual Rules of Origin; Minimal Operations or Processes; Special Provisions; and De Minimis;

— three Appendices:
Appendix 1: Wholly obtained goods;
Appendix 2: Product rules - substantial transformation; and
Appendix 3: Minimal operations or processes.


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Results of the Harmonization Work Programme 

The results of the harmonization programme are to be approved by the Ministerial Conference and will then become an annex to the Agreement. When doing this, the Ministerial Conference is also to give consideration to arrangements for the settlement of disputes relating to customs classification and to establish a time-frame for the entry into force of the new annex.


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Disciplines during the transition period 

During the transition period (i.e. until the entry into force of the new harmonized rules) Members are required to ensure that:

(a) rules of origin, including the specifications related to the substantial transformation test, are clearly defined;

(b) rules of origin are not used as a trade policy instrument;

(c) rules of origin do not themselves create restrictive, distorting or disruptive effects on international trade and do not require the fulfilment of conditions not related to manufacturing or processing of the product in question;

(d) rules of origin applied to trade are not more stringent than those applied to determine whether a good is domestic, and do not discriminate between Members (the GATT MFN principle). However, with respect to rules of origin applied for government procurement, Members are not be obliged to assume additional obligations other than those already assumed under the GATT 1994 (the national treatment exception for government procurement contained in GATT Article III:8).

(e) rules of origin are administered in a consistent, uniform, impartial and reasonable manner;

(f) rules of origin are based on a positive standard. Negative standards are permissible either as part of a clarification of a positive standard or in individual cases where a positive determination or origin is not necessary;

(g) rules of origin are published promptly;

(h) upon request, assessments of origin are issued as soon as possible but no later than 150 days after such request, they are to be made publicly available; confidential information is not to be disclosed except if required in the context of judicial proceedings. Assessments of origin remain valid for three years provided the facts and conditions remain comparable, unless a decision contrary to such assessment is made in a review referred to in (j). This advance information on origin is considered as a great innovation of the Agreement;

(i) new rules of origin or modifications thereof do not apply retroactively;

(j) any administrative action in relation to the determination of origin is reviewable promptly by judicial, arbitral or administrative tribunals or procedures independent of the authority issuing the determination; such findings can modify or even reverse the determination;

(k) confidential information is not disclosed without the specific permission of the person providing such information, except to the extent that this may be required in the context of judicial proceedings.


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Disciplines after the transition period 

As from the conclusion of the HWP, non-preferential rules of origin will be harmonized and Members will be bound to apply only one rule of origin for all purposes covered by Article 1. The principles contained in (d) through (k) above will continue to apply — i.e. transparency, non-discrimination (also including rules of origin applied for government procurement), and the possibility of reviewing any administrative actions concerning determination of origin (Article 3).


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Consultation and dispute settlement 

The WTO provisions on consultation and settlement of disputes apply to the Agreement.


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Preferential rules of origin 

Annex II of the Agreement on Rules of Origin provides that the Agreement's general principles and requirements for non-preferential rules of origin in regard to transparency, positive standards, administrative assessments, judicial review, non-retroactivity of changes and confidentiality shall apply also to preferential rules of origin.


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Notifications Non-preferential rules of origin


Article 5:1 of the Agreement requires each Member to provide to the Secretariat, within 90 days after the date of entry into force of the WTO Agreement for it, its currently applicable rules of origin, judicial decisions and administrative rulings of general application relating to rules of origin. The Secretariat circulates to all Members lists of the information received and available to them.

At its meeting of 4 April 1995, the Committee agreed that any notifications made in a language other than a WTO working language should be accompanied by a summary in a WTO working language (G/RO/1).


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Preferential rules of origin 

Paragraph 4 of Annex II of the Agreement on Rules of Origin provides that Members shall provide to the Secretariat promptly their preferential rules of origin, including a listing of the preferential arrangements to which they apply, judicial decisions, and administrative rulings of general application relating to their preferential rules of origin as soon as possible to the Secretariat. The Secretariat circulates lists of the information received and available to Members.

At its meeting of 4 April 1995, the Committee agreed that any notification made in a language other than a WTO working language, should be accompanied by a summary in a WTO working language (G/RO/1).