The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead

The reports of the WTO’s death are greatly exaggerated

The death of the WTO is greatly exaggerated

By Peter Ungphakorn

As December approached last year, a steady stream of news reports and other articles warned of the impending death of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Deathday (December 10, 2019) came and went and still the WTO is alive and kicking.

If anyone needs proof, they could look at the schedule of meetings for the coming year.

The WTO's schedule of meetings, retrieved Jan 17, 2020
A busy and growing schedule: meetings will continue to be added through the year (retrieved Jan 17, 2020)

Here it is, on the right (click the image to see it full size. The latest version is here).

What all those headline writers should have pointed out is that the crisis is in the WTO Appellate Body, which handles one part of WTO dispute settlement, which is only one part of the WTO’s work. And that the rest of the work continues. The WTO is pretty busy.

Dispute settlement is important for sorting out major legal issues, and appeals are important for dispute settlement.

But what is often forgotten is that one of the main objectives of the WTO is to avoid legal disputes.

The WTO operates a system of negotiated trade rules designed to help trade flow as smoothly as possible, with a minimum of conflict. So far, it’s done a pretty good job of it, as is explained here.

The key to avoiding disputes is to talk things over first, in order to avoid having to go to court. This is done in the “regular” committees (the ones with blue dots in the schedule of meetings) — negotiations take place in the negotiating groups or “special sessions” of the committees (the green dots).

In other words the number and frequency of those meetings of regular committees and councils are indications of the WTO at work.

The schedule on the right was retrieved early in the year, on January 17. More meetings will be added to the schedule throughout the year.

You can stop here
The rest of this is padding, so the text can continue to run beside the schedule (although WordPress advertising could mess that up).

But it’s also an opportunity to explain a bit more about the committees.

If we look at an organisation chart, we’ll see that the WTO consists entirely of meetings.

At the top is the Ministerial Conference, meeting this year in June in Kazakhstan.

Next down is the General Council, the next most powerful body, which can act on behalf of the ministerial conference. It meets every few months.

The General Council also meets as the Dispute Settlement Body, which oversees disputes, and the Trade Policy Review Body, which, er, reviews countries’ trade policies.

Then come the three councils dealing with the three main areas of WTO work — goods, services and intellectual property rights.

The remaining committees handle detailed subjects within or spanning those areas.

All but a tiny handful of those councils and committees comprise the WTO’s full membership. The WTO is genuinely member-driven.

Transparency and peer review
The WTO system is based on negotiated rules, transparency and peer review. Even dispute settlement is run by the members when they meet as the Dispute Settlement Body.

Member governments have to inform each other about their trade measures and in some cases laws. They do this by notifying the WTO Secretariat, which circulates the information among the membership and also to the public.

If other countries have any questions or concerns, these are discussed in the regular committees.

Some of the meetings are “informal”, with no record, allowing ideas to be floated, and for other purposes.

One important series of meetings are the trade policy reviews. Again, this is about transparency and peer review, but on a country’s entire trade policy.

Reports are prepared by the WTO Secretariat and the government under review. Both reports are then presented to the membership, producing a large number of questions and comments.

Trade policy reviews are useful, not only for other countries (and anyone interested a government’s trade policies) but often for the country under review. It provides useful feedback on whether the policies comply with the agreements, or are a good idea in general.

Public Forum
Every year the WTO also organises a Public Forum, for interest groups, academics, delegates and others to discuss a wide range of trade issues.

That’s about it. The crisis in dispute settlement could eventually have an impact on the rest of the WTO’s work, if countries lose faith in the system as a whole. But for now, there’s little sign of that.

Updates: None so far
Photos: Anna-Louise from Pexels (CC0)


Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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