The WTO provides a forum for negotiating agreements aimed at reducing obstacles to international trade and ensuring a level playing field for all. The organization also provides a legal and institutional framework for the implementation and monitoring of these agreements, as well as for settling disputes arising 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 2 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. The WTO currently has 164 members, of which 117 are developing countries or separate customs territories. The WTO activities are supported by a Secretariat of some 700 staff, led by the WTO Director-General. The Secretariat is located in Geneva, Switzerland and has an annual budget of 180 million dollars. The three official languages of the WTO are English, French and Spanish.
Decisions in the WTO are generally taken by consensus of the membership. The highest institutional body is the Ministerial Conference, which meets roughly every two years. A General Council conducts the organization's business in the intervals between Ministerial conferences. Both of these bodies comprise all members. Specialized subsidiary bodies (Councils, Committees, and Sub-Committees), also comprising members, administer and monitor the implementation by members of the various WTO agreements.
More specifically, the WTO's main activities are:
- 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 (i.e. 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.
- Settling disputes among their members regarding the interpretation and application of 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 dissemination 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 openings must be accompanied by sound domestic and international policies that contribute to economic growth and development according to each member's needs and aspirations.