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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 13:20 GMT
What is the World Trade Organization?
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the policeman of global trade.

Its decisions are absolute and every member must abide by its rulings.

So, when the US and the European Union are in dispute over steel or GM foods, it is the WTO which acts as judge and jury.

Extra powers given to the WTO are supposed to ensure that disputes are settled in harmony with international trade principles, and avoid a situation where might makes right.

Four principles

The WTO has 149 members and makes decisions on a basis of unanimity.

No country can wield a power of veto.

Lower tariffs
Equal treatment for all
Rules-based trading system
Fewer subsidies
The principles which members sign up to are:

  • extending trade concessions equally to all WTO members,
  • aiming for a freer global trade with lower tariffs everywhere,
  • making trade more predictable through the use of rules and bringing about more competition by cutting subsidies.

The details of how much countries are prepared to cut tariffs and trade barriers are hammered out at large sessions of talks, so-called trade rounds, of which there have been eight since 1947.

Given the large number of members these are never straight forward affairs with considerable brinkmanship involved.

The scope of trade rounds has steadily expanded and now includes intellectual protection, investment, trade in services and agriculture as well as trade in manufactured goods.

The WTO is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) which lasted from the end of the second World War to 1995.

WTO decisions can only be reversed by an unanimous vote, just as they can only be made that way.

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