From Sunshine to a Common Agent: The Evolving Understanding of Transparency in the WTO

Petros C. Mavroidis, Columbia Law School
Robert Wolfe


Transparency obligations have undergone substantial transformations since the inception of the GATT in 1947. The paper begins by tracing the evolution of transparency principles during the WTO era. From an obligation to publish general laws affecting trade, the system now includes peer review by governments (monitoring and surveillance), and efforts to inform the public. The system is remarkable for what has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. Originally designed for a handful of developed countries, the system now provides an expanded knowledge base that benefits states, economic actors and citizens with inadequate resources to acquire information on their own. Fulfilling this emerging objective will require a stronger role for the WTO Secretariat as a "common agent" for Members. Transparency in the WTO is based on an assumption that agency matters. The evolution of the system reflects an increasingly expansive view of whose agency counts for trade policy, and therefore of what kinds of information should be available, in what form, and what use ought to be made of it. Our expectation is that the continued evolution in the multilateral understanding of agency in trade policy will be reflected in growing sophistication of WTO transparency practices.