(4) World Trade Organization


World Trade Organization (WTO) Website

World Trade Organization

What is WTO?

India Says WTO Trade Deal Can Still Be Salvaged



Organizational structure

Article IV of the Agreement establishing the WTO specifies its organizational structure. An overview of the structures provides us with the first cut towards an understanding of how democratic, egalitarian, or efficient the WTO is as an international organization. Perhaps the most important feature of the structure of the WTO is that it is a member-driven organization. It stands here in striking contrast to the IMF and the World Bank, which have been described as staff-driven organizations, where governments work in close conjunction with the staff and the Executive Board.


In the WTO, the onus of negotiating the agreements, implementing them, and enforcing them falls on the members themselves. This member-driven character of the WTO derives directly from the GATT, whose lack of organizational status placed all responsibilities for conducting any treaty-related business on the signatories themselves. Delegation of powers to a secretariat or an executive board was impossible under the circumstances. The WTO has continued this practice. If there is any international organization whose structure ensures that it is made of its members, for its members, and by its members, the WTO is it.

The flip side of this coin is the small size of the WTO Secretariat and its limited functions of providing technical and administrative support for the members. The Secretariat has been formally constituted in the WTO on a permanent basis, and thereby presents a departure from the temporary secretariat of the GATT. Some of its powers have been expanded in its role of providing technical assistance and conducting Trade Policy Reviews. But in most other matters, the nature of the WTO Secretariat is not very different from the GATT’s. In comparison to other international organizations, the WTO Secretariat continues to be small; and in 2004 comprised only about 600 members of staff (in contrast to the well over 6,000-strong World Bank). Unlike the Fund and the Bank, which generate their own income, the WTO budget is small and comes from the contributions of members.

These contributions are assessed according to the trade shares of the member countries. Countries may, in addition to their contribution, voluntarily provide funds directed towards specific purposes, such as the provision of technical assistance and capacity-building by the Secretariat.

The Secretariat is headed by the director-general, whose ‘powers, duties, conditions of service and term of office’ are all determined by the members in the form of the Ministerial Conference. In practice, however, this is a powerful position, and director generals in the past have played a central role in the negotiation process as agenda-setters and mediators. Countries have therefore vied hard to place their favoured candidate into this choice position, and the selection process has been a fraught one.

Animosities came to the fore in the lead-up to the Seattle Ministerial Conference in 1999, when the term of Renato Ruggiero, the first director-general of the WTO, was coming to an end. Precious time that should have been spent over the agenda for the Seattle Ministerial was instead lost in the leadership struggle, and is seen by many as having contributed to the failure of the Seattle Ministerial Conference. A compromise was finally arrived at, and it was agreed that the term of the director-general would be shared between the two candidates, with Mike Moore of New Zealand succeeding Ruggiero for three years, and Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand taking over for the next three years. Learning from bitter experience, negotiators came up with a set of guidelines to assist in subsequent selection processes and mitigate potential conflict, even though most recognize that it will be impossible to sanitize the process from realpolitik.

The Ministerial Conference constitutes the top most decision-making body in the WTO, thereby reinforcing its member-driven character. It is made up of the ministers responsible for trade affairs for all its member countries. The Ministerial Conference has a long-established tradition in the GATT. But in the GATT, these conferences were held infrequently, usually at the time of the launch of a new round of multilateral trade negotiations. The WTO institutionalized the Ministerial Conference through Article IV.1 of the Agreement: ‘There shall be a Ministerial Conference composed of representatives of all the Members, which shall meet at least once every two years.’ While this practice ensures a political commitment and institutional continuity for the WTO that the GATT never enjoyed, it has also come under criticism. Many developing countries complain that the frequency of ministerial meetings imparts a pace to WTO negotiations that they cannot keep up with.

The everyday functioning of the WTO is managed through an elaborate structure that is based in Geneva and is also composed of its members. Except for about 22 countries, all the other members of the WTO send delegations to their permanent missions in Geneva to enable participation in the WTO.

The top most Geneva-based WTO body is the General Council, which carries out the functions assigned to it by the agreements and by the Ministerial Conference. The General Council meets regularly at the WTO headquarters in Geneva and is open to all the delegates.

It also meets in the guise of the Trade Policy Review Body and Dispute Settlement Body. Below the General Council are three sector-specific councils: the Council for Trade in Goods, the Council for Trade in Services, and the Council for Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights. At the same level as these three councils are five committees that deal with more specific issues. Their coverage extends to trade and environment; trade and development (with a sub-committee on Least Developed Countries); regional trade agreements; balance of payments restrictions; and budget, finance, and administration. In addition to these, there are working parties dealing with accessions, and working groups that carry out exploratory work in the areas of trade and investment, competition policy, and transparency in government procurement. The three councils, and the independent committees, working parties, and working groups, report back to the General Council. Plurilateral committees, dealing with a small group of agreements signed only by a part of the membership, also form part of the GATT structure. At the time of a multilateral negotiation, new committees can be created to facilitate the negotiation process. In 2001, for instance, at the Doha Ministerial Conference, a new Trade Negotiations Committee was created to negotiate the Doha Development Agenda.

At the next level are committees that deal with specific issues in goods and services, and thus exist within the auspices of the sectoral committees on Trade in Goods and Trade in Services. All these meetings are open to the entire membership of the WTO. The exceptions are the committees on the plurilateral agreements, the Textiles Monitoring Body, and the dispute settlement panels and Appellate Body.

All the councils, committees, working groups, and working parties meet according to the Members’ agenda at the time and their requirements. But the expansiveness of the WTO agenda, and the resulting proliferation of appropriate organizational structures, is reflected in the very large number of meetings that are called in the WTO. In addition to these formal meetings, WTO diplomacy thrives on informal meetings at different levels. Hoekman and Kostecki, writing in 2001, estimated that all these formal and informal meetings added up to about 1,200 meetings a year. With the launch of a new round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations as per the Doha Development Agenda of November 2001, the number of these meetings has increased further.

All the organizational structures of the WTO are constituted by member governments and their representatives. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or interest groups have no direct entry into the WTO. Article V.2 of the Agreement establishing the WTO states only that: ‘The General Council may make appropriate arrangements for consultation and cooperation with non-governmental organizations concerned with matters related to those of the WTO.’ Particularly in the aftermath of the debacle at the Seattle Ministerial Conference in 1999, where the legitimacy of the WTO came under serious challenge as a result of mass demonstrations by NGOs of various descriptions, the WTO has made some attempt to engage with non-governmental actors. NGOs can go through a process of accreditation and gain access to some meetings in the Ministerial Conferences. The Appellate Body has also begun to allow amicus curiae briefs (literally, ‘friend of the court’) from NGOs. But even here, the WTO website provides the following interpretation: When the Appellate Body receives unsolicited briefs directly from amicus curiae, the entity filing the brief has no right to have it considered. Nonetheless, the Appellate Body maintains that it has authority to accept and consider any information it considers pertinent and useful in deciding an appeal, including unsolicited amicus curiae submissions.

All in all, if a particular interest group wishes to influence WTO rules, it can do so only through its government. Of course, WTO officials and negotiators recognize that their decisions affect domestic constituencies within countries. But given the member-driven character of the organization, the onus of dealing with the distributive consequences of WTO regulations falls on the member governments rather than the WTO as an international organization.


An analysis of the structures of the WTO reveals an interesting paradox. In many ways, the WTO is one of the most expansive and intrusive organizations of its time. Its Ministerial Conference and many committees make rules that go deep inside the borders of states. Members must adhere to these rules or face retaliation. But simultaneously, the legacy of the GATT has ensured that the WTO is also a very weak organization in other ways. The organization, up to its highest decision-making body – the Ministerial Conference – is made up of the members themselves. The members have not had to surrender any of their decision-making powers to a secretariat, or delegate them to an executive body. Any rules that the members must implement are ones that they themselves made in the councils and committees (which are open to all of them). Any punitive action has to be exercised by the member rather the collective body, and even the Dispute Settlement Body that authorizes such retaliations is ultimately the same as the General Council and therefore constituted by country delegates. Given this rather frail existence of the WTO as an international organization, one might well wonder why the WTO has attracted charges of a democratic deficit. The answer can be found, not in the seemingly democratic structures of the WTO, but in the processes of negotiation and decision-making that underlie them.




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