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Topics handled by WTO committees and agreements
Issues covered by the WTO’s committees and agreements


Basic Purpose and Concepts

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1.1 Historical Background

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The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is the first multilateral trade agreement to cover trade in services. Its creation was one of the major achievements of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, from 1986 to 1993. This was almost half a century after the entry into force of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of 1947, the GATS’ counterpart in merchandise trade.

The need for a trade agreement in services has long been questioned. Large segments of the services economy, from hotels and restaurants to personal services, have traditionally been considered as domestic activities that do not lend themselves to the application of trade policy concepts and instruments. Other sectors, from rail transport to telecommunications, have been viewed as classical domains of government ownership and control, given their infrastructural importance and the perceived existence, in some cases, of natural monopoly situations. A third important group of sectors, including health, education and basic insurance services, are considered in many countries as governmental responsibilities, given their importance for social integration and regional cohesion, which should be tightly regulated and not be left to the rough and tumble of markets.

Nevertheless, some services sectors, in particular international finance and maritime transport, have been largely open for centuries — as the natural complements to merchandise trade. Other large sectors have undergone fundamental technical and regulatory changes in recent decades, opening them to private commercial participation and reducing, even eliminating, existing barriers to entry. The emergence of the Internet has helped to create a range of internationally tradeable product variants — from e-banking to tele-health and distance learning — that were unknown only two decades ago, and has removed distance-related barriers to trade that had disadvantaged suppliers and users in remote locations (relevant areas include professional services such as software development, consultancy and advisory services, etc.). A growing number of governments has gradually exposed previous monopoly domains to competition; telecommunication is a case in point.

This reflects a basic change in attitudes. The traditional framework of public service increasingly proved inappropriate for operating some of the most dynamic and innovative segments of the economy, and governments apparently lacked the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources to exploit fully existing growth potential.

Services have recently become the most dynamic segment of international trade. Since 1980, world services trade has grown faster, albeit from a relatively modest basis, than merchandise flows. Defying wide-spread misconceptions, developing countries have strongly participated in that growth. Between 1990 and 2000 their services exports, consisting mainly of tourism and travel services, grew 3 per cent more rapidly per annum, on a balance-of-payments basis, than developed countries’ exports.

Given the continued momentum of world services trade, the need for internationally recognized rules became increasingly pressing.



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