World Trade Organization (WTO)


The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the organization responsible for setting the global rules governing trade among nations.

The WTO serves as a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements and to settle trade disputes and conduct trade policy reviews of its members. At the organization’s core is a set of agreements that provide the legal “ground rules” for international commerce. Under these agreements governments commit, in an enforceable way, to keep their trade policies within agreed limits.

The WTO currently has 161 member countries (as of December 2014).


The WTO is run by its member governments. All major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, normally by consensus. The WTO has a very small Secretariat, particularly in comparison to other international organizations.

Above all, the WTO is a negotiating forum, and everything that it does is the result of negotiations. The bulk of the WTO’s current work comes from the 1986-94 negotiations called the Uruguay Round and earlier negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures disciplines the use of subsidies, and it regulates the actions countries can take to counter the effects of subsidies.

The WTO also hosts new negotiations. The most recent negotiation was the Doha Round, launched in 2001, which has not been completed. WTO negotiations have historically been organized under the guiding principle of the “single undertaking.” The single undertaking asserts that virtually every item of the negotiation is part of a whole and indivisible package and cannot be agreed separately – that is, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

The WTO’s highest authority is the ministerial conference, which meets at least once every two years. The ministerial conference is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization and making all final decisions on agreements.

There is also the General Council, the Dispute Settlement Body, and the Trade Policy Review Body.

The General Council meets regularly to carry out the functions of the WTO. It is comprised of representatives (usually ambassadors or equivalent) from all member governments and has the authority to act on behalf of the ministerial conference. The Dispute Settlement Body, oversees the dispute resolution process and the implementation of decisions. The Trade Policy Review Body analyzes the trade policies of WTO members according to designated schedules.

The WTO also has other councils, subsidiary bodies, and committees representing broad areas of trade. Particularly relevant to the issue of fisheries subsidies is the standing committees on Trade and Environment.


Since its establishment in 1995, there has been discussion in the WTO of including fisheries subsidies in its trade agenda because of its importance to international commerce, but also as an issue of protecting natural resources.

From 2001 to 2011, the WTO was engaged in a dedicated negotiation on fisheries subsidies as part of its larger Doha trade round. In these negotiations, significant and unprecedented gains were made on the issue, including how subsidy reform could be made operational globally and how to address sustainability in a legal context. The Doha round was never completed, and as a result a WTO fisheries subsidies agreement has not been established.

However, the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations had lasting impacts. The negotiations created international visibility and commitment to the topic and reform actions. Fisheries subsidies has also become a subject that is “institutionalized” in the WTO and with some governments, even beyond the Doha negotiations.

In December 2013, 13 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, and the United States, issued a statement at the 9th WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali calling for WTO members to take action at all levels, including national, regional, and multilateral, to reform and strengthen disciplines on fisheries subsidies.

In 2015, the WTO is expected to adopt a “post-Doha work program” to be undertaken in the next two years. It is currently unclear how fisheries subsidies might be included in such a program.

What could the Wto produce/do on fisheries subsidies?

The WTO could establish new disciplines and rules on fisheries subsidies. The multilateral trading system represents the best opportunity to address the problem of fisheries subsidies at a global scale.

The nature of fisheries as a common resource makes removing subsidies at a national or regional level difficult, as those that agree to reduce their subsidies could be disadvantaged by other parties that have the same access to the resource. In addition, unlike many other international organizations, the WTO adopts rules that are binding, making any new measures on fisheries subsidies legally enforceable.

The following are some other activities the WTO could undertake:

  • The WTO could issue a ministerial statement or decision by the General Council (such as to initiate a “pause”) on fisheries subsidies.
  • The WTO could pursue policy and technical work within its standing committees.
  • Fisheries subsidies could be more systematically incorporated into the Trade Policy Review (TPR) process. Similarly, WTO members could raise inquiries on the practices of specific countries in their respective TPRs.
  • A country or countries could pursue a WTO case on fisheries subsidies if there is a relevant scenario. WTO subsidy notification on fisheries subsidies could be enhanced.
  • Information about fisheries subsidies and their impacts and effects could be incorporated into the training and capacity building programs of the WTO.


World Trade Organization
Centre William Rappard
Rue de Lausanne 154
CH-1211 Geneva 21

Tel: +41 0 22 739 51 11
Fax: +41 0 22 731 42 06

Email: [email protected]

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