The World Trade Organization (WTO) was established on January
1, 1995, by one of the agreements negotiated under the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Uruguay Round (1986
to 1994). The WTO establishes a permanent multilateral forum
for trade negotiations and dispute settlement.
The WTO is home to a series of trade agreements covering
agriculture, services, intellectual property rights and other
issues never before included in international trade rules.
A Dispute Settlement Body was created to give this multilateral
trade system an enforcement mechanism. The WTO was established
with a commitment to raising standards of living, ensuring
full employment and expanding trade while upholding the objective
of sustainable development.
The WTO negotiates by consensus. It is governed by the General
Council, where all 144 member countries are represented. Conferences
are held at the Ministerial level within two years of the
last Ministerial to review the work program and direction
of the organization. The first Ministerial was held in Singapore
in 1996, the second in Geneva in 1998, the third in Seattle
in 1999 and the fourth in Doha in 2001. The fifth Ministerial
Conference is being held in Cancun from September 10-14, 2003.
What Happened at the Doha Ministerial?
fair trade in Cancun and the world over.
Negotiations were very contentious at the
Doha Ministerial Conference in 2001. An additional 24 unscheduled
hours were required to reach a final declaration. The heated
negotiations included a failed attempt by the U.S., Australia
and Switzerland to block otherwise unanimous support for a
Declaration on Intellectual Property and Health that clarified
the supremacy of public health concerns over pharmaceutical
companies’ patent rights. The victory reflected the
consolidated strength of a broad coalition of public interest
groups, working with concerned governments, that insisted
that trade expansion cannot and should not trump public interest
Other results were less hopeful. A commitment to reform the
practices that contribute to agricultural dumping (exporting
crops at below the cost of production) was very weak, while
a number of issues that many developing countries opposed
were inserted, including a new negotiation on the legal relationship
between the WTO and Multilateral Environmental Agreements
(MEAs). Governments ought properly to address that relationship
in a more neutral forum, not as trade negotiators at the WTO.
Also troubling is the commitment to negotiate the outcome
of all the negotiations as a single package rather than negotiating
agreements such as agriculture and services independently.
This puts developing countries, particularly the smallest
delegations, at a considerable disadvantage because they must
negotiate all of the agreements, even if only a few are relevant
for their own commercial interests. Developing countries now
face multiple, complex negotiations in Geneva, where one or
two diplomats are obliged to cover three or more simultaneous
meetings on any given day.
The most contentious fight in Doha was over whether to include
the so-called Singapore issues (because they were initially
raised at the WTO Ministerial in Singapore): investment, competition,
government procurement and trade facilitation. The first two
areas are particularly controversial, with a wide variety
of development institutions, including bilateral aid agencies
and World Bank economists, joining many developing country
governments in resisting their inclusion in the current round
of negotiations. The compromise was a decision to review whether
to formalize negotiations in these areas at the fifth Ministerial
Between Doha and Cancun
The tension between rules and agreements set up by the United
Nations (UN) and those established by the WTO has grown in
recent years. Several important questions are being asked
in the international community: Could UN agreements, such
as the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Cartagena Protocol
on Biosafety or the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste, conflict
with WTO agreements designed to facilitate trade? And if there
is a conflict, how do we reach a resolution?
At the recently completed World Summit on Sustainable Development
in Johannesburg, many governments tried to negotiate a procedure
within the UN system to evaluate how trade rules can be a
barrier to environmental protection and when a Multilateral
Environmental Agreement might appropriately trump the WTO.
Within the UN system, the Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights has similarly noted that “actual or
potential conflict exists” between the WTO’s agriculture
and intellectual property rights agreements and international
human rights laws, including, the right to food, housing,
work, health, education and self-determination. After heated
debate in Johannesburg on how to reconcile different international
agreements, the final documents merely call for “mutual
supportiveness” among trade, environment and development.
The challenge of finding a more definitive approach will be
revisited in Cancun.
Reprinted with permission of the Institute
for Agricultural Trade Policy.