The World Trade Organization (WTO)

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the principal international institution for the management of international trade. It was created at the Uruguay round of trade talks in 1994, when it was agreed to transform the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into a permanent institution.

WTO is an intergovernmental institution of 149 member states, with responsibilities for providing a forum for trade negotiations, handling trade disputes and monitoring national trade policies. While it has strong links with various UN organizations, it is not a UN organization. There are currently 16 different multilateral trade-related agreements. Member states do not necessarily participate in all such agreements.

The leading normative organization on trade regulation is the WTO, and the key agreements affecting health are:

  • Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
  • General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)
  • Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT)
  • Agreements on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS)

Trade in agricultural products is also covered by WTO agreements.

Since the inception of GATT more than 50 years ago, its agreements guarantee a member's right to take measures to restrict imports and exports of products when those measures are necessary to protect the health of humans, animals and plants. Similarly, Article XIV of the GATS authorizes members to take measures to restrict services and service suppliers for the protection of human, animal or plant life or health under relevant conditions. These health exceptions indicate the importance that WTO members assign to national autonomy in the protection of health. This has been clearly established in WTO jurisprudence and reiterated in the TBT and SPS agreements. To make use of the health exceptions, WTO agreements generally require the health measures to be no more trade restrictive than necessary. Determining whether a measure is necessary involves a process of weighing up and balancing a series of factors, which include the importance of the interests protected by the measure, its efficacy in pursuing the policies, and the measure's potential impact on imports or exports.

Member states have been active in using such measures - evidence that they are not merely precautionary. For example, in June 2008, the South Korean government lifted a ban on American beef, which it had put in place amidst fears of BSE (mad cow disease) back in 2003. This was not only an issue of international politics, which had been a sore point in South Korean-US relations, but one of domestic importance as illustrated by the violent demonstrations that took place in Seoul following the government's decision to lift the ban.

The director-general of WTO is Pascal Lamy. The director-general is appointed for a four-year term. The WTO secretariat in Geneva employs 625 staff.


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