World Trade Organisation (WTO)
The WTO’s creation on 1 January 1995 marked the biggest reform of international trade since after the Second World War. It also brought to reality − in an updated form − the failed attempt in 1948 to create an International Trade Organization.
The WTO began life on 1 January 1995, but its trading system is half a century older. Since 1948, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) had provided the rules for the system. (The second WTO ministerial meeting, held in Geneva in May 1998, included a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the system). It did not take long for the General Agreement to give birth to an unofficial, de facto international organization, also known informally as GATT. Over the years GATT evolved through several rounds of negotiations.
The last and largest GATT round, was the Uruguay Round which lasted from 1986 to 1994 and led to the WTO’s creation. Whereas GATT had mainly dealt with trade in goods, the WTO and its agreements now cover trade in services, and in traded inventions, creations and designs (intellectual property).
There are a number of ways of looking at the WTO. It’s an organization for liberalizing trade. It’s a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements. It’s a place for them to settle trade disputes. It operates a system of trade rules.
Essentially, the WTO is a place where member governments go, to try to sort out the trade problems they face with each other. The first step is to talk. 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.
Before the creation of the WTO, GATT had 123 members. The current WTO members are 151, with the recent accession of Tonga.
All members have joined the system as a result of negotiation and therefore membership means a balance of rights and obligations. They enjoy the privileges that other member-countries give to them and the security that the trading rules provide. In return, they had to make commitments to open their markets and to abide by the rules. Those commitments were the result of the membership (or “accession”) negotiations. Countries negotiating membership are WTO “observers”.
Any state or customs territory having full autonomy in the conduct of its trade policies may join (“accede to”) the WTO, but WTO members must agree on the terms.