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Whither the world trading system – Trade policy reform, the WTO and prospects for the new round

Where does the World Trade Organisation fit in the overall scheme of international public policy?

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The WTO retains the core business of its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, i.e. negotiating and enforcing rules for market access in industrial goods, but it has manifestly gone further than the GATT. It now provides rules for market access in agriculture, textiles and clothing, and services; it has a strong agreement on intellectual property protection; and more detailed coverage of trade procedures (e.g. on subsidies, technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, customs valuation and import licensing). In particular, it houses a strong, legalistic and quasi-automatic dispute settlement mechanism, in stark contrast to the GATT’s weak dispute settlement procedures which relied less on strict ruleadherence and more on diplomacy. Lastly, the new round of multilateral trade negotiations, launched at the Fourth Ministerial Conference in Qatar in November 2001, proposes to take the WTO into new territory to cover investment, competition and environment-related policies. Clearly, the WTO is a weightier international organisation than the GATT.