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The WTO is usually referred to as a ‘member-driven organisation’. This term aims to capture the idea that it is states and customs territories, the members of the WTO, that have the initiative to decide on the direction of the institution. The WTO Secretariat is more or less what the term denotes: staff hired in order to help the members realise their aspirations. This is as true today as it was yesterday. Actually, over the years the Secretariat has for various reasons accumulated extra responsibilities, always with the tacit acquiescence or explicit acknowledgement of the members. In short, the members are the principals, and the Secretariat is the agent, an agent on a tight leash.

There is only one exception to this quintessential element of corporate governance permeating the multilateral trading system: dispute settlement. Early on, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) contracting parties decided that disputes should be adjudicated by ‘neutral’ experts (trade delegates) holding a nationality other than that of the parties in dispute, as opposed to seeing them settled by the parties to the dispute with no recourse to third parties. These neutral experts would subsequently submit a report that the parties to a dispute were free to accept or reject. Following years of incremental evolution, we have ended up with the current paradigm of dispute adjudication where the losing party cannot control the legal fate of a report anymore.


Dispute Resolution and Arbitration | International Trade Law | Law


This material has been published in "A History of Law and Lawyers in the GATT/WTO: The Development of the Rule of Law in the Multilateral Trading System", edited by Gabrielle Marceau. This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use.