World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is in charge of the global rules of trade between nations. The WTO is based on the WTO agreements signed by most of the world’s trading nations; its main function is to help producers of goods and services, exporters and importers to better protect and manage their businesses.

Some, especially multinational corporations, believe that the WTO is ideal for business. Other types of organizations and individuals believe that the WTO undermines the principles of organic democracy and further widens the international wealth gap.

It has become closely associated with globalization and is a frequent target for critics of the process. The main functions of the WTO are to provide a forum for negotiations to reduce barriers to international trade and to administer a system of rules that govern trade.

The WTO was established in 1995, when it took over essentially the same functions as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which entered into force in 1948. One of the motivations for the creation of the GATT was the desire to dismantle barriers to trade that had been erected between the two world wars.

The organization provides a system for settling disputes when one country alleges that another has violated WTO rules. The WTO secretariat carries out its daily activities, with more than 600 permanent staff under the direction of a director general, currently Roberto Azevdo, a Brazilian diplomat. The CEO is a key figure in the main negotiations, although decisions are made by the member governments. Azevedo succeeded Frenchman Pascal Lamy in 2013.

Critics of the WTO argue that it is pursuing an agenda driven by business interests and that its rules undermine the sovereignty of its member states. In recent years, the lack of progress in the Doha Round talks has led some countries to seek trade deals between smaller groups.

The countries of the European Union are all members, but act together in the WTO as the EU. In addition to its current 162 members, 21 other countries have applied to join the WTO, including Iran, Iraq and Syria. Negotiations can be very slow. Algeria, for example, applied in 1987 (to the WTO’s predecessor, the GATT) and has not yet agreed to the terms of membership.