World Trade Organization: Global Agreements in Secret
The WTO was established January 1, 1995, by a Ministerial declaration signed in April 1994. One of the bodies of law on trade in goods that the WTO administers is the General Agreement on Trade and Tarriffs (GATT). The WTO also administers and embodies the General Agreement on Trade in Services, the Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights, and the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes. The WTO, as well as being a body of law, is an international institution based in Geneva.
What does the WTO have to do with sustainable development? Briefly, any law or regulation passed by a WTO member that affects trade flows — even if its purpose is primarily environmental protection — has to measure up to GATT rules.
Unlike most United Nations treaties, where NGOs can have observer status and a right of access to papers, and all but the most heated of negotiations, the WTO has refused to allow NGOs access to WTO documents, negotiations, and working committees.
The WTO has been granted an enforcement mechanism unique in international law. The dispute settlement panel’s power within the WTO consists of three corporate lawyers that meet in secret arriving at decision with or without input which only they can request. There are no conflict of interest regulations. Final rulings can invalidate laws passed by any democratically elected parliament around the world. Their decision can be appealed but once the appellate body makes its determination the matter is final and can only be overturned by a consensus of all of the 134 WTO member countries, including the country who first brought the grievance.
For more information on campaigns to make the WTO more accountable, visit our Sustainable Consumption section.