World Trade Organization

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was an international organization created in 1947 to reduce trade barriers through multilateral negotiations. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was organized in January 1995 to replace GATT and improve international trade. Its membership in 2002 totaled more than 140 nations.

Whereas GATT focused on tariff reduction, the WTO works to eliminate so-called nontariff barriers, which can include environmental, health, and other public-interest regulations that are considered impediments to international trade. Any member country has the right to challenge other members' laws under the WTO dispute-settlement process. When this occurs, the WTO forms a three-person tribunal to hold hearings on the case, which take place in secret in Geneva, Switzerland. If the tribunal finds that the law is illegal within the context of WTO policy, it has the power to order the country to change the law or face trade sanctions.

The WTO's first ruling involved a successful challenge to the U.S. Clean Air Act. Brazil and Venezuela had complained that a part of the act that required all foreign sources of U.S. gas imports to meet a certain cleanliness standard was discriminatory. The U.S. government was ordered to amend its regulation or face retaliatory trade sanctions of approximately $150 million per year. It opted to modify the law.

This ruling unleashed a flood of other challenges against environmental laws, such as U.S. dolphin and sea turtle protections, Japan's ban on fruit imports carrying invasive species, and the European Union's ban on U.S. beef injected with growth hormones.

The WTO does allow some exceptions for laws that are "necessary to protect human, animal or plant life and health." However, this exception has proved virtually useless, since WTO panels have interpreted the language to mean that laws must represent the "least trade-restrictive" way to achieve the environmental goal.

Although WTO rulings have most often targeted environmental protections, the organization has also drawn strong criticism from labor unions. Among other complaints, they argue that the WTO should adopt rules in support of internationally recognized labor rights as a way to prevent corporations and governments from gaining an unfair trade advantage by abusing workers.

In December 1999 tens of thousands of environmentalists joined with trade unionists and other activists to protest the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Seattle, Washington. The "Teamsters and Turtles" united in the streets, combined with disputes among some member countries, forced the organization to abandon plans to launch a new round of negotiations. The "Battle in Seattle" also thrust the WTO into the public limelight for the first time. The next WTO meeting was sited far from angry crowds and international media attention in isolated Doha, Qatar. Although it concluded with the announcement of plans for a new round of discussion, the meeting was fraught with tensions and the WTO's future appears anything but smooth.



Shrybman, Steven. (1999). The World Trade Organization: A Citizen's Guide. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Internet Resource

World Trade Organization Web site. Available from .

Sarah Anderson

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