World Trade Organisation (WTO)

WTO: Navigating Global Trade Dynamics

World Trade Organization established in 1995, regulates global trade, ensuring fair practices and dispute resolution among 164 member countries. It fosters trade liberalization, facilitates negotiations for trade agreements, and addresses emerging challenges to promote economic growth and stability on a global scale.

World Trade Organisation


In a world where globalization has become an integral part of economic interactions, the World Trade Organization (WTO) stands as a crucial institution facilitating international trade. Established on January 1, 1995, the WTO replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which had been in place since 1948. The WTO serves as a forum for negotiating trade agreements, settling disputes between member states, and providing a platform for dialogue on global trade issues. This article by Academic Block dives into the functions, structure, history, and controversies surrounding the WTO, examining its role in shaping the global economic landscape.

Historical Background

The origins of the WTO can be traced back to the aftermath of World War II, when countries sought to establish mechanisms for promoting international trade and economic cooperation. The signing of the GATT in 1947 marked the beginning of a multilateral trading system aimed at reducing tariffs and other barriers to trade. Over the ensuing decades, the GATT underwent several rounds of negotiations, leading to significant reductions in trade barriers and the liberalization of global commerce.

However, by the late 1980s, it became apparent that the GATT framework was inadequate in addressing emerging issues such as services trade, intellectual property rights, and trade-related investment measures. As a result, negotiations began in 1986 to establish a more comprehensive and institutionalized framework for international trade. These negotiations culminated in the Marrakesh Agreement, which established the WTO as the successor to the GATT.

Functions and Objectives

The WTO’s primary function is to facilitate the smooth flow of international trade by providing a platform for member states to negotiate trade agreements and resolve disputes. Central to its objectives is the promotion of free and fair trade, with a focus on reducing barriers such as tariffs, quotas, and discriminatory trade practices.

One of the key principles underlying the WTO’s operations is the concept of nondiscrimination, encapsulated in the most-favored-nation (MFN) principle. According to this principle, member states are required to extend the same favorable treatment to all trading partners, ensuring a level playing field for all participants.

Another fundamental principle of the WTO is reciprocity, which involves countries granting concessions in trade negotiations in exchange for similar concessions from their trading partners. This principle forms the basis of the WTO’s negotiating process, whereby member states seek to secure favorable terms for their exports while making concessions in areas of import sensitivity.

In addition to negotiating trade agreements, the WTO also serves as a forum for member states to engage in dialogue and cooperation on various trade-related issues. Through its committees and working groups, the WTO addresses a wide range of topics, including trade in services, intellectual property rights, and trade and development.

Structure and Governance

The WTO is governed by a set of institutional structures designed to facilitate decision-making and ensure the effective operation of the organization. At the apex of the WTO is the Ministerial Conference, which meets biennially to set the organization’s agenda and provide strategic direction.

Below the Ministerial Conference is the General Council, which acts as the highest decision-making body of the WTO between ministerial meetings. The General Council is composed of representatives from all member states and is responsible for overseeing the implementation of WTO agreements and resolving disputes between member states.

Assisting the General Council are various subsidiary bodies, including the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for Trade in Services, and the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). These bodies are responsible for monitoring the implementation of specific trade agreements and addressing issues related to their respective areas of competence.

In addition to its institutional structures, the WTO also has a Secretariat, headed by the Director-General, which provides administrative support to the organization. The Secretariat plays a crucial role in facilitating negotiations, assisting member states in implementing WTO agreements, and providing technical assistance to developing countries.

Trade Negotiations and Agreements

One of the primary functions of the WTO is to facilitate trade negotiations aimed at liberalizing global commerce and addressing emerging trade issues. These negotiations take place within the framework of multilateral trade rounds, which involve all member states seeking to reach consensus on various trade-related matters.

The most recent and comprehensive round of WTO negotiations, known as the Doha Development Agenda, was launched in 2001 with a focus on addressing the needs and interests of developing countries. However, progress in the Doha Round has been slow, with negotiations stalling on contentious issues such as agricultural subsidies, market access for non-agricultural goods, and services trade.

In the absence of a successful conclusion to the Doha Round, the WTO has increasingly turned to smaller-scale negotiations involving subsets of member states. These so-called plurilateral agreements cover specific sectors or issues and allow like-minded countries to pursue deeper integration in areas of mutual interest.

One notable example of a plurilateral agreement is the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), which aims to liberalize trade in services among a group of WTO members representing a significant portion of global services trade. While plurilateral agreements offer potential benefits in terms of flexibility and progressiveness, they also raise concerns about their impact on the multilateral trading system and the principle of nondiscrimination.

Dispute Settlement Mechanism

Central to the functioning of the WTO is its dispute settlement mechanism, which provides a means for member states to resolve disputes arising from alleged violations of WTO agreements. The dispute settlement process is based on a set of rules and procedures outlined in the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU), which forms an integral part of the WTO agreements.

The dispute settlement mechanism consists of several stages, beginning with consultations between the parties involved in the dispute. If consultations fail to resolve the issue, the complaining party may request the establishment of a dispute settlement panel to examine the matter and issue a ruling.

Once a panel has been established, it conducts a thorough examination of the facts and legal arguments presented by the parties and issues a report outlining its findings and recommendations. If either party disagrees with the panel’s findings, they have the right to appeal the decision to the WTO’s Appellate Body, which reviews the legal aspects of the case and issues a final ruling.

The rulings of WTO dispute settlement panels and the Appellate Body are binding on the parties involved and must be implemented within a specified timeframe. Failure to comply with WTO rulings can result in the imposition of trade sanctions or other retaliatory measures by the prevailing party.

Challenges and Controversies

Despite its central role in facilitating international trade, the WTO has faced criticism and controversy on several fronts. One of the most common criticisms leveled against the organization is its perceived lack of transparency and inclusivity in decision-making processes. Critics argue that the WTO’s negotiations are often dominated by developed countries, with limited participation and representation from developing nations.

Another source of contention is the imbalance in the distribution of benefits and costs associated with WTO agreements. While free trade has undoubtedly led to economic gains for many countries, critics argue that the benefits have not been evenly distributed, with marginalized groups and vulnerable sectors often bearing the brunt of liberalization policies.

Furthermore, the WTO has been criticized for its perceived failure to adequately address pressing global challenges such as climate change, income inequality, and food security. Critics argue that the organization’s narrow focus on trade liberalization has led to a neglect of broader social and environmental concerns, undermining its legitimacy and relevance in the 21st century.

In recent years, the WTO has also faced challenges to its dispute settlement mechanism, particularly in light of the United States’ blocking of appointments to the Appellate Body. This has raised concerns about the effectiveness and enforceability of WTO rulings, undermining confidence in the organization’s ability to resolve disputes and uphold the rule of law in international trade.

Final Words

Despite the challenges it faces, the WTO remains an essential institution for promoting international trade and economic cooperation. As countries grapple with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and seek to rebuild their economies, the need for a rules-based multilateral trading system has never been greater.

In addition, the WTO must continue to modernize its rules and procedures to reflect the evolving nature of global trade, including the growing importance of digital commerce and the green economy. By embracing innovation and cooperation, the WTO can play a central role in shaping a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient global economy for future generations. Hope you enjoyed reading with Academic Block, please provide your insightful thoughts to make this article better. Thanks for Reading!

This Article will answer your questions like:

What is a World Trade Organisation?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international body established in 1995 to regulate global trade by negotiating agreements and resolving disputes among member countries. It aims to facilitate smooth, predictable, and free commerce worldwide.

What is the main function of the WTO?

The main function of the WTO is to regulate international trade by providing a forum for negotiating trade agreements and resolving disputes among member countries, aiming to ensure smooth, predictable, and free commerce globally.

How many countries are in the WTO?

The WTO has 164 member countries, including both developed and developing nations, representing a significant portion of global trade activity.

When was the WTO established?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was established on January 1, 1995, succeeding the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) as the international body regulating global trade.

What are the function of the WTO?

The WTO functions primarily to facilitate international trade by negotiating trade agreements and resolving disputes among member countries, aiming to ensure smooth, predictable, and free commerce worldwide.

How does the WTO resolve disputes between member states?

The WTO resolves disputes between member states through a structured process of consultations, followed by the establishment of dispute settlement panels, and ultimately, rulings issued by the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body, providing a framework for enforcing compliance with international trade rules.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the WTO and global trade?

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted global trade, leading to supply chain disruptions, decreased demand, and trade restrictions. Additionally, the WTO has faced challenges in facilitating negotiations and resolving disputes due to restrictions on in-person meetings and economic uncertainties.

Reforms proposed to strengthen WTO

Addressing Dispute Settlement Mechanism: Reforming the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism to address concerns about delays, blockages, and the functioning of the Appellate Body. Proposals include finding solutions to the Appellate Body’s deadlock, ensuring timely appointments of members, and improving transparency and accountability in dispute resolution processes.

Updating WTO Rules and Agreements: Modernizing WTO rules and agreements to reflect the changing dynamics of global trade, including digital commerce, environmental sustainability, and labor standards. This could involve negotiating new agreements or updating existing ones to address emerging trade issues such as e-commerce, climate change, and the digital economy.

Enhancing Transparency and Notifications: Improving transparency and notification requirements to ensure that member countries comply with their obligations under WTO agreements. This could involve strengthening monitoring and reporting mechanisms, enhancing access to information, and promoting greater transparency in trade policies and practices.

Promoting Development and Special Treatment: Strengthening provisions for development and special treatment for developing countries to ensure that they can fully participate in and benefit from the multilateral trading system. This could include providing technical assistance, capacity-building support, and flexibility in implementing WTO agreements.

Addressing Trade Distortions: Addressing trade distortions caused by subsidies, state-owned enterprises, and unfair trade practices. Reform proposals include strengthening disciplines on industrial subsidies, enhancing transparency in government support measures, and promoting fair competition in global markets.

Enhancing Flexibility and Differentiation: Recognizing the diverse needs and capacities of WTO members and allowing for greater flexibility and differentiation in their trade commitments. This could involve revisiting the principle of special and differential treatment, providing transition periods for implementation, and accommodating the interests of small and vulnerable economies.

Improving Governance and Decision-Making: Enhancing governance structures and decision-making processes within the WTO to ensure greater inclusivity, transparency, and effectiveness. This could include reforming the WTO’s decision-making bodies, strengthening coordination with other international organizations, and promoting greater engagement with civil society and stakeholders.

Dispute Settlement between WTO member states


  • The dispute settlement process typically begins with consultations between the parties involved in the dispute. The complaining party initiates the process by requesting consultations with the respondent country to discuss the matter and seek a mutually satisfactory resolution.
  • Consultations are conducted in good faith and are intended to provide an opportunity for the parties to clarify their positions, exchange information, and explore possible solutions to the dispute. If the consultations do not lead to a resolution within a specified timeframe (usually 60 days), the complaining party may request the establishment of a dispute settlement panel.

Establishment of a Dispute Settlement Panel:

  • If consultations fail to resolve the dispute, the complaining party may request the establishment of a dispute settlement panel to examine the matter and issue a ruling. The panel is composed of independent experts chosen from a roster maintained by the WTO Secretariat.
  • The panel conducts a thorough examination of the facts and legal arguments presented by the parties and issues a report outlining its findings and recommendations. The panel’s report is confidential and is shared only with the parties involved in the dispute.
Adoption of Panel Report:
  • The panel’s report is circulated to all WTO members, and the parties involved in the dispute have an opportunity to review and comment on the findings and recommendations. If the parties do not appeal the panel’s report within a specified timeframe (usually 60 days), it is considered adopted by the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB).

Appellate Review (Optional):

  • Either party has the right to appeal the panel’s report to the WTO’s Appellate Body if they disagree with its findings or legal interpretations. The Appellate Body conducts a review of the panel’s report and issues a final ruling on the matter.
  • The Appellate Body’s rulings are binding on the parties involved in the dispute and must be implemented within a specified timeframe. However, due to a lack of appointments, the Appellate Body has been unable to hear new appeals since December 2019, leading to concerns about the effectiveness of the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism.

Implementation of Rulings:

  • Once a dispute settlement panel or the Appellate Body has issued a ruling, the parties involved are expected to implement the recommendations within a reasonable period. If a party fails to comply with a ruling, the prevailing party may seek authorization from the DSB to retaliate by imposing trade sanctions or other retaliatory measures.

Impact of Covid-19 on WTO and Global Trade

Disruption of Supply Chains: The pandemic led to widespread disruptions in global supply chains due to lockdowns, travel restrictions, and disruptions to production and transportation. Many countries faced shortages of essential goods and medical supplies, highlighting the vulnerability of interconnected supply chains to external shocks.

Decline in Trade Volume: Global trade volumes experienced a sharp decline in the wake of the pandemic as demand plummeted and economic activity slowed. The disruption to trade flows resulted in a contraction of trade volumes in goods and services, affecting both developed and developing countries.

Rise in Protectionism: In response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, some countries implemented protectionist measures such as export restrictions, tariffs, and trade barriers. These measures aimed to safeguard domestic industries, ensure the availability of essential goods, and reduce reliance on foreign suppliers. However, such measures risked exacerbating trade tensions and undermining the principles of free and open trade.

Challenges to Trade Facilitation: The pandemic posed challenges to trade facilitation efforts, including customs procedures, documentation requirements, and border controls. Restrictions on movement and social distancing measures at borders slowed the clearance of goods and increased the cost and complexity of trade transactions.

Impact on Services Trade: Services trade, particularly in sectors such as tourism, hospitality, and transportation, was severely affected by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and lockdown measures. Many service providers faced a sharp decline in demand, leading to job losses and economic hardship in affected sectors.

Dispute Settlement Challenges: The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges to the functioning of the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism, with disruptions to hearings, consultations, and the operation of the Appellate Body. Delays in dispute resolution processes further undermined the effectiveness of the WTO in resolving trade disputes and upholding the rule of law in international trade.

Objective of World Trade Organisation (WTO)

Facilitate Trade: The primary goal of the WTO is to facilitate the smooth flow of international trade by reducing barriers such as tariffs, quotas, and discriminatory trade practices. By promoting trade liberalization, the WTO aims to create a more open and predictable trading environment, fostering economic growth and development.

Promote Free and Fair Trade: The WTO seeks to promote free and fair trade by establishing rules and principles that govern international commerce. Central to this objective is the principle of nondiscrimination, which requires member states to extend the same favorable treatment to all trading partners, thereby ensuring a level playing field for all participants.

Provide a Platform for Negotiation: The WTO serves as a forum for member states to negotiate trade agreements aimed at further liberalizing global commerce. Through multilateral trade rounds and plurilateral agreements, member states seek to reach consensus on various trade-related issues, including market access, subsidies, and intellectual property rights.

Settle Disputes: Another key objective of the WTO is to provide a mechanism for resolving disputes between member states arising from alleged violations of WTO agreements. The WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism allows parties to seek redress for trade-related grievances through a transparent and rules-based process, thereby ensuring the effective enforcement of WTO rules.

Promote Economic Development: The WTO is committed to promoting economic development and integration, particularly in developing countries. By providing technical assistance and capacity-building support, the WTO helps developing countries to participate more effectively in the global trading system and reap the benefits of trade liberalization.

Ensure Policy Coherence: The WTO seeks to ensure policy coherence between trade and other areas of domestic and international policy, including environmental protection, labor rights, and public health. By promoting coherence and coordination among different policy domains, the WTO aims to maximize the positive impact of trade on sustainable development and human welfare.

Location: Switzerland

Headquarters: Centre William Rappard, Geneva, Switzerland

Founded in: 1 January, 1995

Director: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Members: 164 members including 160 UN members with Taiwan, Macao, Hong Kong & European Union.


Difference between WTO and GATT

Legal Status and Structure:

  • GATT: GATT was a multilateral agreement that existed as a series of negotiated rounds from 1947 to 1994. It was not an organization but rather a set of rules governing international trade among its signatories.

  • WTO: The WTO, established in 1995, replaced GATT and is a permanent international organization with its own legal personality. It has a more formalized structure, including a Secretariat, Ministerial Conferences, and a Dispute Settlement Body.


  • GATT: GATT primarily focused on trade in goods, specifically the reduction of tariffs and other barriers to trade in manufactured goods.

  • WTO: The WTO covers a broader range of trade issues, including trade in goods, services, and intellectual property rights. It also addresses trade-related aspects of investment, competition policy, and environmental regulations.

Dispute Settlement Mechanism:

  • GATT: GATT had a limited and voluntary dispute settlement mechanism that relied on consultations and mediation between disputing parties. It lacked the binding enforcement mechanism of the WTO.
  • WTO: The WTO has a robust and binding dispute settlement mechanism outlined in the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU). It provides for panels to hear disputes and the possibility of appeal to an Appellate Body, with rulings enforceable through sanctions if necessary.

Decision-Making Process:

  • GATT: Decision-making in GATT was largely consensus-based and informal, with negotiations conducted on a round-by-round basis.
  • WTO: The WTO has a more structured decision-making process, with decisions made by consensus among its member states. Ministerial Conferences, General Council meetings, and subsidiary bodies play key roles in setting the organization’s agenda and making decisions.

Focus on Services and Intellectual Property:

  • GATT: GATT did not address trade in services or intellectual property rights in a comprehensive manner.
  • WTO: The WTO includes agreements such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which provide rules and disciplines for trade in services and intellectual property, respectively.

Principles of WTO’s Operation

Non-Discrimination: This principle stipulates that member countries must extend the same favorable treatment, such as reduced tariffs or other trade concessions, to all other WTO members. In other words, any advantage granted to one trading partner must be extended to all others, ensuring equality and nondiscrimination in trade relations.

Under this principle, WTO members are required to treat foreign goods, services, and nationals no less favorably than their own. This means that once goods or services have entered a country’s market, they should be treated the same as domestically produced goods or services.

Reciprocity: Reciprocity is a foundational principle of WTO negotiations. It involves countries granting concessions in trade negotiations in exchange for similar concessions from their trading partners. This principle underpins the process of trade liberalization, where countries agree to reduce tariffs and other trade barriers in a reciprocal manner, leading to mutual benefits.

Transparency: The WTO emphasizes transparency in its operations to ensure that trade policies and practices are predictable and understandable. Member countries are required to notify the WTO of their trade-related measures and policies, providing other members with the opportunity to review and assess their potential impact. Transparency promotes trust and confidence among WTO members and helps prevent the adoption of protectionist measures.

Predictability: WTO rules and disciplines aim to provide a predictable and stable trading environment for businesses and governments. By establishing clear and enforceable rules governing international trade, the WTO reduces uncertainty and enhances the predictability of trade relations. This encourages investment, promotes economic growth, and fosters confidence in the multilateral trading system.

Promotion of Fair Competition: The WTO seeks to promote fair competition by prohibiting unfair trade practices, such as dumping (selling goods below cost to gain market share) and subsidies that distort trade. WTO agreements contain provisions that address these practices and provide mechanisms for resolving disputes arising from alleged violations.

Development and Special Treatment for Developing Countries: The WTO recognizes the need to support the economic development and integration of developing countries into the global trading system. Special and differential treatment provisions allow developing countries to implement WTO agreements at a pace and manner that takes into account their specific economic circumstances and development needs. The WTO also provides technical assistance and capacity-building support to help developing countries benefit from trade liberalization.

Academic References on the World Trade Organisation


  1. Bhagwati, J. (2008). Termites in the trading system: How preferential agreements undermine free trade. Oxford University Press.
  2. Jackson, J. H., & Davey, W. J. (2016). Legal problems of international economic relations: Cases, materials and text on the national and international regulation of transnational economic relations (6th ed.). West Academic Publishing.
  3. Hoekman, B., & Kostecki, M. M. (2009). The political economy of the world trading system: From GATT to WTO. Oxford University Press.
  4. Petersmann, E. U. (2017). The GATT/WTO dispute settlement system: International law, international organizations, and dispute settlement. Kluwer Law International.
  5. Howse, R., & Nicolaidis, K. (Eds.). (2002). The federal vision: Legitimacy and levels of governance in the US and the EU. Oxford University Press.
  6. Hufbauer, G. C., & Schott, J. J. (2005). NAFTA revisited: Achievements and challenges. Institute for International Economics.
  7. Pauwelyn, J. (2005). Conflict of norms in public international law: How WTO law relates to other rules of international law. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Bartels, L. (2019). Understanding international trade law (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Journal Articles:

  1. Bagwell, K., & Staiger, R. W. (2002). The economics of the World Trading System. MIT Press.
  2. Busch, M. L., & Reinhardt, E. (2000). Bargaining in the shadow of the law: Early settlement in GATT/WTO disputes. Fordham International Law Journal, 24(1), 158-185.
  3. Horn, H., Mavroidis, P. C., & Nordström, H. (2000). Is the use of the WTO dispute settlement system biased? International Review of Law and Economics, 20(1), 21-33.
  4. Hufbauer, G. C., & Schott, J. J. (2009). Buy American: Bad for jobs, worse for reputation. Peterson Institute for International Economics Policy Brief, (PB09-2).
  5. Mavroidis, P. C. (2001). Remedies in the WTO legal system: Between a rock and a hard place. European Journal of International Law, 12(1), 89-120.
  6. Pelc, K. J. (2010). Trade disputes and the design of preferential trade agreements. World Politics, 62(1), 1-42.
  7. Pauwelyn, J. (2001). The role of public international law in the WTO: How far can we go? American Journal of International Law, 95(3), 535-578.
  8. Tussie, D. (2006). The politics of trade in Latin American development: The role of coalitions in the formation of trade policy and the quest for regionalism. Journal of Latin American Studies, 38(4), 731-757.
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