The World Trade Organization (WTO) is located in Geneva, Switzerland and was established on January 1, 1995, following the completion of the Uruguay Round (1986-1994) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It is an organization comprised of 148 member nations and is the only international organization that deals with rules of trade between countries.
The main function of the WTO is to ensure that trade flows smoothly and predictably. It does this through:
- The administration of trade agreements;
- The operation of a forum for negotiations;
- The monitoring of national trade policies; and
- The handling of trade disputes.
The WTO is run by its member governments, with the highest authority being the Ministerial Conference, which meets at least once every two years to discuss current issues and future directions. Day-to-day work is completed by the secretariat staff of about 500 and is supervised by the General Council, as well as numerous committees, sub-committees, working parties, and negotiating groups.
One very important aspect of the WTO is the numerous agreements, which outline the legal ground rules of trade and are negotiated and signed by WTO member country governments, and then ratified by their respective parliaments.
Decisions at the WTO are typically made by consensus. However, in the past, much of the decision-making authority rested with the countries with the most economic and political power. This is beginning to change. Developing countries now make up almost 80% of the WTO membership, and in addition to making concessions, they have the right to make demands. This changing climate can be noted by the developing countries' insistence on being full participants in ongoing negotiations (such as agriculture).
The increasingly important role of developing countries in international trade negotiations is not the only aspect that is undergoing change. Historically, most, if not all, trade agreements were negotiated behind doors. However, widespread public international interest in such agreements and their potential impacts has led to recognition by governments that the trade negotiation process must become more transparent (eg. the release of the draft Free Trade Area of the Americas text).
Visit the WTO website for more information.