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Explaining the WTO

Explaining the WTO

The World Trade Organisation was established in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It aims to “ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible” by regulating and overseeing international trade.

It has 164 members and is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The WTO’s main functions include:  

  • Managing WTO trade agreements which cover goods, services and intellectual property. These agreements establish international trade rules and are negotiated and signed by governments. The majority of the WTO’s existing rules were negotiated during the 1986-94 Uruguay Round.
  • Acting as a forum for trade negotiations and trade disputes between countries.
  • Monitoring trade policies of members.
  • Technical assistance for developing countries.

One of the key aspects of the WTO is non-discrimination. Under the ‘most-favoured nation principle’, any preferential trading agreement that a member reaches with another country must be extended to all other members.  Alongside this principle, the WTO also aims to make the global system more competitive, free, and beneficial for less developed countries.

The current negotiating round is the Doha Development Round. The negotiations began in 2001, but after several meetings, they eventually came to a halt in 2008. The main difficulties have been divisions between developed and developing countries, as well as differences between the EU and US over agricultural subsidies.

Decision-making in the WTO

Decisions are taken by the WTO members, normally by consensus.

The highest decision-making body is the Ministerial Conference, which must meet at least once every two years. At these meetings, members decide on a package of rules called a Single Undertaking, rather than voting on individual rules. These packages are mostly agreed in advance. Developed countries are known to be very influential in this process, particularly the US and the EU (which is a WTO member in its own right), who both invest large amounts of diplomatic resources into securing agreement on Single Undertakings.


Despite its aim to ensure free, equal and beneficial trade for developing countries, the WTO has faced much criticism for biased trade rules which advance the interests of the most developed countries, who tend to be the most influential in agenda-setting and decision-making.

Less developed countries face a lot of political pressure to join the WTO, and increasingly new members have been required to adopt strict conditions and economic standards of existing members, which can be harmful to them economically.

The WTO has also been the subject of large civil society protests against its agreements, some of the most notable being the protests at the Seattle 1999 and Cancun 2003 Ministerial Conferences.

Photo: WTO Public Forum 2010 Credit: WTO/Jay Louvion on Flickr under licence (CC BY-ND 2.0)