The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. UPSC Aspirants preparing for IAS Exam should know about this topic.


  • WTO
  • Main Activities
  • WTO agreements
  • Building trade capacities in developing countries


  • The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations.
  • At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.
  • The WTO provides a forum for negotiating agreements aimed at reducing obstacles to international trade and ensuring a level playing field for all, thus contributing to economic growth and development.

  • The WTO also provides a legal and institutional framework for the implementation and monitoring of these agreements, as well as for settling disputes arising from their interpretation and application.

  • The current body of trade agreements comprising the WTO consists of 16 different multilateral agreements (to which all WTO members are parties) and two different plurilateral agreements (to which only some WTO members are parties)

  • Over the past 60 years, the WTO, which was established in 1995, and its predecessor organization the GATT have helped to create a strong and prosperous international trading system, thereby contributing to unprecedented global economic growth.


  • Location: Geneva, Switzerland
  • Established: 1 January 1995
  • Created by: Uruguay Round negotiations (1986-94)
  • Membership: 164 members representing 98 per cent of world trade


  •  negotiating the reduction or elimination of obstacles to trade (import tariffs, other barriers to trade) and agreeing on rules governing the conduct of international trade (e.g. antidumping, subsidies, product standards, etc.)
  • administering and monitoring the application of the WTO's agreed rules for trade in goods, trade in services, and trade-related intellectual property rights
  •  monitoring and reviewing the trade policies of our members, as well as ensuring transparency of regional and bilateral trade agreements
  • settling disputes among our members regarding the interpretation and application of the agreements
  •  building capacity of developing country government officials in international trade matters
  •  assisting the process of accession of some 30 countries who are not yet members of the organization
  •  conducting economic research and collecting and disseminating trade data in support of the WTO's other main activities
  •  explaining to and educating the public about the WTO, its mission and its activities.

The WTO's founding and guiding principles remain the pursuit of open borders, the guarantee of most-favoured-nation principle and non-discriminatory treatment by and among members, and a commitment to transparency in the conduct of its activities. The opening of national markets to international trade, with justifiable exceptions or with adequate flexibilities, will encourage and contribute to sustainable development, raise people's welfare, reduce poverty, and foster peace and stability. At the same time, such market opening must be accompanied by sound domestic and international policies that contribute to economic growth and development according to each member's needs and aspirations.



It all began with trade in goods. From 1947 to 1994, the GATT was the forum for negotiating lower tariffs and other trade barriers; the text of the GATT spelt out important rules, particularly non- discrimination. Since 1995, the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO and its annexes (including the updated GATT) has become the WTO’s umbrella agreement. It has annexes dealing with specific sectors relating to goods, such as agriculture, and with specific issues such as product standards, subsidies and actions taken against dumping. A recent significant addition was the Trade Facilitation Agreement, which entered into force in 2017.


Banks, insurance firms, telecommunications companies, tour operators, hotel chains and transport companies looking to do business abroad enjoy the same principles of more open trade that originally only applied to trade in goods. These principles appear in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). WTO members have also made individual commitments under the GATS stating which of their service sectors they are willing to open to foreign competition, and how open those markets are.

Intellectual property

The WTO’s Intellectual Property Agreement contains rules for trade in ideas and creativity. The rules state how copyrights, patents, trademarks, geographical names used to identify products, industrial designs and undisclosed information such as trade secrets – “intellectual property” – should be protected when trade is involved.

Dispute settlement

The WTO’s procedure for resolving trade conflicts under the Dispute Settlement Understanding is vital for enforcing the rules and therefore for ensuring that trade flows smoothly. Governments bring disputes to the WTO if they think their rights under the WTO agreements are being infringed. Judgements by specially appointed independent experts are based on interpretations of the agreements and individual members' commitments. The system encourages members to settle their differences through consultation with each other. If this proves to be unsuccessful, they can follow a stage- by-stage procedure that includes the possibility of a ruling by a panel of experts and the chance to appeal the ruling on legal grounds. Confidence in the system is borne out by the number of cases brought to the WTO – more than 500 cases since the WTO was established compared with the 300 disputes dealt with during the entire life of the GATT (1947-94).

Trade monitoring

The WTO's Trade Policy Review Mechanism is designed to improve transparency, to create a greater understanding of the trade policies adopted by WTO members and to assess their impact. Many members see the reviews as constructive feedback on their policies. All WTO members must undergo periodic scrutiny, each review containing reports by the member concerned and the WTO Secretariat. In addition, the WTO undertakes regular monitoring of global trade measures. Initially launched in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, this global trade monitoring exercise has become a regular function of the WTO, with the aim of highlighting WTO members' implementation of both trade- facilitating and trade-restricting measures.


Over three-quarters of WTO members are developing or least-developed economies. All WTO agreements contain special provisions for them, including longer time periods to implement commitments, measures to increase their trading opportunities and support to help them build the infrastructure needed to participate in world trade.

A WTO Committee on Trade and Development looks at developing economies’ special needs. Its responsibility includes implementation of the WTO agreements, technical cooperation and the increased participation of developing economies in the global trading system.

The Aid for Trade initiative, launched by WTO members in 2005, is designed to help developing economies build trade capacity, enhance their infrastructure and improve their ability to benefit from trade- opening opportunities. So far, over US$ 400 billion has been disbursed to support Aid for Trade projects. A Global Review of the initiative is held every two years at the WTO’s headquarters.

The Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) is the only multilateral partnership dedicated exclusively to assisting least developed countries (LDCs) in their use of trade as an engine for growth, sustainable development and poverty reduction. The EIF partnership of 51 countries, 24 donors and eight partner agencies, including the WTO, works closely with governments, development organizations, civil society and academia. The EIF has invested in over 170 projects, with US$ 220 million committed to supporting the poorest countries in the world.

Another partnership supported by the WTO is the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), set up to help developing economies meet international standards for food safety, plant and animal health and access global markets. The WTO houses the Secretariat and manages the STDF trust fund, which has provided financing of over US$ 50 million to support projects in low-income economies.

Technical assistance and training

The WTO organizes hundreds of technical cooperation missions to developing economies annually. It also holds many trade policy courses each year in Geneva for government officials. Regional seminars are held regularly in all regions of the world, with a special emphasis on African countries. E-learning courses are also available. In 2019, some 22800 participants benefited from WTO training aimed at improving understanding of WTO agreements and global trade rules.