About the WTO

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was founded in 1995. It aims to increase international trade in goods, services and agriculture through multilateral negotiations. It also serves to enforce adherence to WTO agreements through its dispute resolution process.

In general, AFTINET advocates for multilateral trade negotiations involving 164 WTO members over bilateral and regional negotiations. A fair multilateral system would be non-discriminatory, give developing countries equal negotiating power and put people and the environment at the centre of all talks.

The failure of the WTO to deliver meaningful outcomes for poorer countries, along with its fundamentalist neoliberal agenda has led to stalled negotiations and dashed hopes of a functioning multilateral trade system, let alone a fair one.

From 1995 the WTO had agreements on goods, services, agriculture, intellectual property, and other issues. But over the last decade the WTO has stalled on new agreements, with only one agreement reached between all its members: the 2013 “Bali Package” on trade facilitation, which had a tiny scope compared with previous meetings and overall WTO objectives.

The WTO has focussed instead on negotiating smaller agreements involving fewer countries. One example is the WTO Environmental Goods Agreement, for which negotiations are ongoing with an aim to remove tariffs on products that are considered good for the environment. However, only 17 countries out of the WTO’s 164 member states are involved in the deal, and an agreement has not yet been reached.

The result of the WTO’s shortcomings has been an increasing number of bilateral and regional free trade agreements being negotiated outside the WTO framework. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)

These deals have generally left out the poorest countries and pushed a more “ambitious” corporate agenda, including chapters which are not about traditional trade issues at all – such as increased investor rights, greater restrictions on government regulation and stronger intellectual property provisions which are actually the opposite of “free trade” since they promote stronger monopolies.

Major shortcomings of the WTO

The WTO was formed in 1995 following on from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The Doha Round was launched in 2001 but remains incomplete and this impasse has made new WTO negotiations impossible.

The neo-liberal free market policies promoted by the WTO, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have attracted widespread criticism and protest.

AFTINET has heavily criticised the WTO’s promotion of a model of growth based on export processing zones in developing countries, where working conditions are poor and environmental standards are low. This has created a “race to the bottom” to attract investors. The death of 1132 Bangladeshi garment workers who were ordered to work in an unsafe building in April 2013 is only one example of the result of such policies.

The promotion of global agribusiness at the expense of sustainable local agriculture has also led to food crises in developing countries, and the promotion of financial market deregulation contributed to the global financial crisis.

The WTO also expanded and enforced intellectual property rights in favour of corporations and at the expense of consumers.

Part of the reason for the current stalemate in WTO negotiations is the organisation’s failure to deliver a level playing field for developing countries to negotiate. For example, the US and the EU retained unfair subsidies on their agricultural exports while insisting that developing countries remove their tariffs, with the result that they have been flooded with cheaper imports.

Read more about the following WTO negotiations:

Updated: December 2016