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Public International Law Research

A guide that highlights resources and recommended strategies for conducting research on international law topics.

General Overview of the World Trade Organization

General Overview of the World Trade Organization

Established in 1995, the World Trade Organization focuses on the elimination of trade barriers through negotiations and trade agreements. The current body of trade agreements comprising the WTO consists of 16 different multilateral agreements (to which all WTO members are parties). The WTO is organized into two major branches, the Ministerial Conference and the General Council. Within the General Council, there are multiple subgroups and committees with their own individual responsibilities. The following table outlines the general structure of the organization:

Ministerial Conference General Council
Highest decision-making  body that meets every two years. All members of the WTO are a part of this conference, and it can make decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements.  More active than the Ministerial Conference, it meets regularly to carry out the functions of the WTO. Representatives from all member governments sit on the Council and they can act on behalf of the ministerial conference. Contains numerous subgroups and committees with specific purposes.
Singular organ with no subsidiary committees or groups. Main subgroups include: Dispute Settlement Body, Trade Policy Review Body, Council for Trade in Goods, Council for Trade-Related Aspects of IP Rights, and Council for Trade in Services.
Can view Ministerial Declarations and Decisions here. Can view Annual Reports, Minutes, Working Documents, and Proposed Agendas here.

Information in this summary is taken from the WTO website.

Online Access to Primary Material

Online Access to Primary Material

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, 1948-1994)

GATT refers to a set of multilateral trade agreements aimed at the abolition of quotas and the reduction of tariff. Originally signed by 23 countries in 1947, it was considered a temporary solution that would eventually be subsumed under the United Nations. When that failed to occur, GATT was enlarged at several succeeding negotiations. GATT was in place from 1948-1994 and managed tariffs between 125 nations. GATT was eventually replaced by the World Trade Organization in 1995.

The WTO website provides access to all official documents issued under GATT, including over 49,000 documents that trace the development of the global trading system during the postwar period. 

WTO Legal Texts & Trade Agreements

Most of the current WTO agreements are the result of the 1986-94 Uruguay Round negotiations, which culminated with the creation of the World Trade Organization in the Marrakesh Agreement in April 1994. There are about 60 agreements and decisions in this collection, along with supporting documentation.

The Marrakesh Agreement was organized into Annexes, each addressing a specific issue related to global trade. You can access all the agreements here. The following table outlines the Annexes and indicates the content focus of each:

Annex 1A Multilateral Agreements on Trade in Goods
Annex 1B General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)
Annex 1C Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
Annex 2 Dispute Settlement Understanding
Annex 3 Trade Policy Review Mechanism
Annex 4 Plurilateral Trade Agreements

Official Records (WTO Bodies and Committees)

The WTO website also provides access to the official records for each body and committee within the organization. The documents are organized by body/committeee, so be sure to have a general idea of which group you need to research. You can access those documents here.

Background Papers

The Background Papers section of the WTO website provides access to a variety of content that is organized by topic. Note that each within each major topical section, you will find multiple subtopics that categorize studies and papers from individual WTO committees.

Secondary Sources on the World Trade Organization