• Friday, July 19, 2024
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The WTO at 20 — a message from DG Azevêdo


20 years ago, on 1 January 1995, the WTO opened its doors for business. Since then this organization, and the system of transparent, multilaterally-agreed rules that it embodies, has made a major contribution to the strength and stability of the global economy. Over the years the WTO has helped to boost trade growth, resolve numerous trade disputes and support developing countries to integrate into the trading system. It has also provided a bulwark against protectionism, the value of which was made plain in the trade policy response to the 2008 crisis, which was very calm and restrained in contrast to the protectionist panic that followed previous crises. Indeed, when the global economy is more interconnected than ever, it is difficult to imagine a world without the WTO.

Our organization has evolved since 1995. We have welcomed 33 new members, ranging from some of world’s largest economies to some of the least developed. Today our 160 members account for approximately 98% of global trade. Moreover, at our 9th Ministerial Conference in Bali in 2013, we took our first major step forward in updating multilateral trade rules. The measures agreed in Bali were a real breakthrough for the WTO, and they will provide a significant economic boost. In December 2014 WTO Members came together to recommit to implementing all aspects of the Bali package.

So as we look to the year ahead there is a lot of work to do — and many challenges to meet. While we have delivered in many areas, and despite the success of Bali, the pace of negotiations remains a source of frustration. In future we know that we need to deliver more outcomes, more quickly. In addition, we know that our poorest members are still not adequately integrated into the trading system, so again we need to do more to help them reap the benefits that the system can offer.

2015 is set to be an eventful year for the WTO. We will be holding our 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi from 15 to 18 December — the first time the WTO has ever held a Ministerial Conference in Africa. Heads of international organizations will convene at our headquarters in Geneva to participate in the 5th Global Review of Aid for Trade from 30 June to 2 July, and we will welcome business people, NGOs, academics and others to discuss our work and a range of trade issues at the WTO’s annual Public Forum from 30 September to 2 October. Moreover, we will be working to implement all aspects of the Bali package and we already have a full negotiating agenda — including a deadline of July to conclude a detailed road map to tackle the remaining issues of the Doha Development Agenda. We will also be seeking to make progress in negotiations on trade in environmental goods and on an agreement to remove tariffs on a wide range of information technology products.

Success in each of these areas would be the best way to mark our 20th anniversary — and to reaffirm the contribution that the WTO has made to improving people’s lives and prospects over the last two decades.

What is the    WTO?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business.

The WTO was born out of negotiations, and everything the WTO does is the result of negotiations. The bulk of the WTO’s current work comes from the 1986–94 negotiations called the Uruguay Round and earlier negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO is currently the host to new negotiations, under the ‘Doha Development Agenda’ launched in 2001.

Where countries have faced trade barriers and wanted them lowered, the negotiations have helped to open markets for trade. But the WTO is not just about opening markets, and in some circumstances its rules support maintaining trade barriers — for example, to protect consumers or prevent the spread of disease.

At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations. These documents provide the legal ground rules for international commerce. They are essentially contracts, binding governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits. Although negotiated and signed by governments, the goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, while allowing governments to meet social and environmental objectives.

The system’s overriding purpose is to help trade flow as freely as possible — so long as there are no undesirable side effects — because this is important for economic development and well-being. That partly means removing obstacles. It also means ensuring that individuals, companies and governments know what the trade rules are around the world, and giving them the confidence that there will be no sudden changes of policy. In other words, the rules have to be ‘transparent’ and predictable.

Trade relations often involve conflicting interests. Agreements, including those painstakingly negotiated in the WTO system, often need interpreting. The most harmonious way to settle these differences is through some neutral procedure based on an agreed legal foundation. That is the purpose behind the dispute settlement process written into the WTO agreements.

Overview of the WTO secretariat

The responsibility of the WTO Secretariat is to provide top-quality, independent support to WTO member governments on all of the activities that are carried out by the Organization, and to serve the WTO with professionalism, impartiality and integrity.

The Secretariat is a multicultural team of highly-qualified individuals who possess the wide range of skills, knowledge and experience required to handle the Secretariat’s responsibilities and to work together as an efficient and diligent international civil service.

 Role of the Secretariat back to top

The WTO Secretariat, with offices only in Geneva, has 639 regular staff and is headed by a Director-General. Since decisions are taken by Members only, the Secretariat has no decision-making powers. Its main duties are to supply technical and professional support for the various councils and committees, to provide technical assistance for developing countries, to monitor and analyze developments in world trade, to provide information to the public and the media and to organize the ministerial conferences. The Secretariat also provides some forms of legal assistance in the dispute settlement process and advises governments wishing to become Members of the WTO.

The Secretariat staff of includes individuals representing about 70 nationalities. The professional staff is composed mostly of economists, lawyers and others with a specialization in international trade policy. There is also a substantial number of personnel working in support services, including informatics, finance, human resources and language services. The total staff complement is composed almost equally of men and women. The working languages of the WTO are English, French and Spanish.

The Appellate Body was established by the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes to consider appeals to decisions by Dispute Settlement panels. The Appellate Body has its own Secretariat. The seven-member Appellate Body consists of individuals with recognized standing in the fields of law and international trade. They are appointed to a four-year term, and may be reappointed once.