The Organization, its structure and decision-making
The Organisation came into being in January 1995, with the entry into force of the results of the Uruguay Round. As of June 2018, it has 164 members which represent more than 97% of total world trade.
The WTO is a member-driven organisation. This means that members decide in which direction, and how fast, it shall move. The structure of the WTO is established in the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO. It includes political and technical bodies. At the apex of the pyramid, there is the Ministerial Conference. Read more
All members may participate in the decision-making process, having each one vote – regardless of the size of the country, of its weight in international trade or of its contributions to the WTO budget. Decision-making is based on the GATT practice: i.e. consensus. However, the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO contains voting provisions, applicable where no consensus can be reached. In any event, virtually all decisions are taken based on the consensus rule. Read more
The structure is as follows:
The highest institutional body is the Ministerial Conference. It is the top level decision-making body. Ministers for Trade, or equivalent, represent members in such meetings. Read more
Below there is the General Council which, much like the Ministerial Conference, is a political body. It is composed normally by ambassadors and heads of delegation in Geneva. The General Council meets several times a year in the Geneva headquarters and takes decision in between Ministerial Conferences. The General Council also meets as the Trade Policy Review Body and the Dispute Settlement Body. Read more
At the next level, the Goods Council, Services Council and Intellectual Property ("TRIPS") Council report to the General Council. Numerous specialized committees, working groups and working parties deal with the individual agreements and other areas such as the environment, development, membership applications and regional trade agreements. Read more
The updated calendar of meetings of all WTO bodies can be accessed at the WTO's website.
The Ministerial Conference ("MC") is at the highest level of the WTO’s structural organization. It is the supreme authority which takes final decisions on all matters concerning the WTO. It is composed of ministerial-level officials, usually trade ministers from all Members. It meets at least every two years and ensures the involvement of senior officials of members in trade. The MC carries out WTO functions and takes decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements. From the establishment of the WTO until June 2018, 11 MCs have taken place.
In addition to very broad decision-making power competences, the MC also maintains a number of specific powers, as adopting authoritative interpretations of the WTO agreements, granting waivers, appointing the WTO Director-General and adopting staff regulations of WTO Secretariat. The 12th Ministerial Conference will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan. This will be the first such event organised by a CIS country. One of the objectives of this Conference is to approve the accession of several applicant countries.
Ministerials have played important role in the further liberalization of international trade. Some achievements are presented below:
More information on the proceedings and results of each Ministerial Conference can be accessed at the WTO's website.
The General Council ("GC") is the second level decision-making body composed of representatives of all the members. These representatives are normally Members’ delegates/ambassadors based in Geneva.
In between Ministerial Conference meetings, the GC carries out Ministerial Conference’s functions on a day-to-day basis. It is the functional body and the real engine of the WTO who takes the main decisions instead of the Ministerial Council. The GC has the power to take any decisions which the Ministerial Conference can take. Other than Ministerial Council’s functions, the GC also has specific functions assigned to it under WTO rules. These include adopting the annual budget and the financial regulations, among others. The GC is responsible for cooperation with intergovernmental organizations. The GC also acts as the Dispute Settlement Body ("DSB") and Trade Policy Review Body ("TPRB") under different terms of reference. Thus, when it administers the WTO dispute settlement system, it acts as the DSB and when it administers the WTO trade policy review mechanism, it acts as the TPRB. Both DSB and TPRB have their own Chairman and own procedures.
The GC meets several times a year. It elects a Chair every year from the members of the Council. The Chair of the GC holds the highest elected office in the WTO. The Chair in 2018 is Ambassador Junichi Ihara from Japan. The General Council page of the WTO website contains further information on the work of the General Council, including summaries of the discussions held.
(General Council meeting of 3 October 2016, source: www.wto.org)
After general decision-making bodies of the WTO, next come specialized councils, committees, working groups and working parties. Operating in specific areas of trade, these bodies are open to all members of the WTO.
There are three councils operating under the General Council:
- Council for Trade in Goods (Goods Council)
- Council for Trade in Services (Services Council)
- Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Council)
Covering each of the 3 major areas of the WTO, they oversee the functioning of the respective agreements, these being several agreements on trade in goods, the General Agreement on Trade in Services and the Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights.
The Councils establish their rules of procedure. They may establish and maintain subsidiary bodies, if necessary for their functioning. For example, the Goods Council maintains 13 committees responsible for specific subjects, such as agriculture, market access, rules of origin, subsidies and countervailing measures, etc.
Committees are specialised, each of them dealing with a separate substantive issue. They are either:
- Established under the Councils and report to them or
- Established under the General Council and report to the Council directly
Capital-based officials tend to participate in these meetings, since they are the ones with technical competence on the implementation of the agreements. Most committees meet twice per year, one in the Spring and a second time in the Fall. Agendas for these meetings are published in advance. Within their competence, they tend to review the legislation notified by members as well as its implementation. Members exchange written questions and replies in advance of the meetings. Within the meetings, follow-up questions and replies are usually provided. For each meeting, detailed minutes are published in the WTO website.
Working parties on State-Trading Enterprises, Domestic Regulation and GATS rules as well as Working Parties on Accessions and Working groups on trade, debt and finance and trade and technology transfer exist as part of the WTO. Bodies provided for in Plurilateral Trade Agreements operate within WTO’s institutional framework, too.
There is a parallel structure in charge of the negotiations. At the apex, there is the Trade Negotiations Committee ("TNC"). It plays an important role supervising the overall conduct of the negotiations. The TNC has two active Negotiating Groups, on market access and rules, while special sessions of a few councils and committees take place in the TNC.
The WTO has a Secretariat in order to support the daily administrative work of the Organization. The Secretariat is an independent body separate from the members. It is headed by a Director General selected by the WTO members. The Director General and the Secretariat staff are international civil servants, independent of members. The current Director General is Roberto Azevêdo from Brazil. He currently serves his second term.
As decisions are taken by the WTO members only, the Secretariat has no decision-making powers. It carries out several duties:
The WTO Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The Secretariat’s working languages are English, French and Spanish, as are WTO’s. It maintains 634 regular staff. The members of the Secretariat are highly-qualified individuals from 78 WTO nationalities. Their professional backgrounds are mostly in economics, law and international trade policy. There is also a substantial number of staff working in support services, as informatics, finance, human resources and language services.
The WTO Secretariat has its annual budget mostly based on WTO members’ contributions. Members pay according to their annual share of world trade. The single largest contributor to the budget is the United States. The WTO’s budget for 2018 is CHF 197,203,900.
(WTO Headquarters, William Rappard Centre, Geneva, Source: www.wto.org)
The WTO continues the practice of decision-making by consensus followed under preceding GATT 1947. This rule is followed by the Ministerial Conference and General Council, and also in the works of councils, committees and working parties. It engages all members in the process and takes into account interests of all. A decision is taken by consensus if no member country present at the meeting “formally objects to the proposed decision”. That makes the nature of the consensus “positive” which means that for a decision to be taken, all members attending a given meeting have to agree. If there is no consensus, members vote. Each member has one vote. The decision is taken if there is a simple majority, unless qualified majority is required by the respective agreement related to the issue at hand.
Specific voting conditions
- 3/4 majority of the Members are required for:
- A decision to adopt an Authoritative interpretation of the WTO Agreement and annexed multilateral agreements
- A decision to waive an obligation imposed on a particular member by a multilateral agreement
- 2/3 majority of the Members are required for:
- Decisions to amend provisions of the multilateral agreements. Depending on the nature of the provision concerned, this decision can be given by the all members
- A decision to admit a new member is taken
- Adoption of a panel report
- Adoption of an Appellate Body report
- Authorisation to suspend concessions or other obligations