WTO Ministerial Conference

The WTO is run by its member governments. All major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, either by ministers (who meet at least once every two years) or by their ambassadors or delegates (who meet regularly in Geneva). Decisions are normally taken by consensus. In this respect, the WTO is different from some other international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the WTO, power is not delegated to a board of directors or the organization’s head. When WTO rules impose disciplines on countries’ policies, that is the outcome of negotiations among WTO members. The rules are enforced by the members themselves under agreed procedures that they negotiated, including the possibility of trade sanctions. But those sanctions are imposed by member countries, and authorized by the membership as a whole. This is quite different from other agencies whose bureaucracies can, for example, influence a country’s policy by threatening to withhold credit.
In general, ministerial conferences are the WTO’s highest decision-making body, meeting at least once every two years and providing political direction for the organization. 1. Singapore : 9-13 December 1996 2. Geneva : 18-20 May 1998 3. Seattle: Nov 30-Dec.3, 1999 4. Doha : 9-13 November 2001 5. Cancun : 10-14 September 2003 6. Hong Kong: 13-18 December 2005 7. Geneva : 30 Nov.- 2 December 2009 8. Geneva : 15-17 December 2011 9. Bali : 3-6 December 2013

Reaching decisions by consensus among some 15 members can be difficult. Its main advantage is that decisions made this way are more acceptable to all members. And despite the difficulty, some remarkable agreements have been reached. Nevertheless, proposals for the creation of a smaller executive body — perhaps like a board of directors each representing different groups of countries — are heard periodically. But for now, the WTO is a member-driven, consensus-based organization. So, the WTO belongs to its members. The countries make their decisions through various councils and committees, whose membership consists of all WTO members. Topmost is the ministerial conference which has to meet at least once every two years. The Ministerial Conference can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements.

The Doha Declaration

The November 2001 declaration of the Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, provides the mandate for negotiations on a range of subjects, and other work including issues concerning the implementation of the present agreements. The negotiations take place in the Trade Negotiations Committee and its subsidiaries. Other work under the work programme takes place in other WTO councils and committees.

The work programme

The 21 subjects listed in the Doha Declaration (and the paragraphs that refer to them). Most of these involve negotiations; other work includes actions under “implementation”, analysis and monitoring:

Implementation-related issues and concerns

Implementation is short-hand for problems raised particularly by developing countries about the implementation of the current WTO Agreements, i.e. the agreements arising from the Uruguay Round negotiations. In Doha this important question was handled in two ways. First, ministers agreed to adopt around 50 decisions clarifying the obligations of developing country member governments with respect to issues including agriculture, subsidies, textiles and clothing, technical barriers to trade, trade-related investment measures and rules of origin. Agreement on these points required hard bargaining between negotiators over the course of nearly three years. Many other implementation issues of concern to developing countries have not been settled , however. For these issues, Ministers agreed in Doha on a future work programme for addressing these matters. In paragraph 12 of the Ministerial Declaration, ministers underscored that they had taken a decision on the 50 or so measures in a separate ministerial document (the 14 November 2001 decision on Implementation-Related Issues and Concerns”) and pointed out that “negotiations on outstanding implementation issues shall be an integral part of the Work Programme in the coming years. The ministers established a two-track approach. Those issues for which there was an agreed negotiating mandate in the declaration would be dealt with under the terms of that mandate. Those implementation issues where there is no mandate to negotiate, would be the taken up as “a matter of priority” by relevant WTO councils and committees. These bodies are to report on their progress to the Trade Negotiations Committee by the end of 2002 for appropriate action.


Negotiations on agriculture began in early 2000, under Article 20 of the WTO Agriculture Agreement. By November 2001 and the Doha Ministerial Conference, 121 governments had submitted a large number of negotiating proposals. These negotiations will continue, but now with the mandate given by the Doha Declaration, which also includes a series of deadlines. The declaration builds on the work already undertaken, confirms and elaborates the objectives, and sets a timetable. Agriculture is now part of the single undertaking in which virtually all the linked negotiations are to end by 1 January 2005. The declaration reconfirms the long-term objective already agreed in the present WTO Agreement: to establish a fair and market-oriented trading system through a programme of fundamental reform. The programme encompasses strengthened rules, and specific commitments on government support and protection for agriculture. The purpose is to correct and prevent restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets. Without prejudging the outcome, member governments commit themselves to comprehensive negotiations aimed at:

  • market access: substantial reductions
  • exports subsidies: reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of these
  • domestic support: substantial reductions for supports that distort trade

The declaration makes special and differential treatment for developing countries integral throughout the negotiations, both in countries’ new commitments and in any relevant new or revised rules and disciplines. It says the outcome should be effective in practice and should enable developing countries meet their needs, in particular in food security and rural development. The ministers also take note of the non-trade concerns (such as environmental protection, food security, rural development, etc) reflected in the negotiating proposals already submitted. They confirm that the negotiations will take these into account, as provided for in the Agriculture Agreement.


Negotiations on services were already almost two years old when they were incorporated into the new Doha agenda. The WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) commits member governments to undertake negotiations on specific issues and to enter into successive rounds of negotiations to progressively liberalize trade in services. The first round had to start no later than five years from 1995. Accordingly, the services negotiations started officially in early 2000 under the Council for Trade in Services. In March 2001, the Services Council fulfilled a key element in the negotiating mandate by establishing the negotiating guidelines and procedures. The Doha Declaration endorses the work already done, reaffirms the negotiating guidelines and procedures, and establishes some key elements of the timetable including, most importantly, the deadline for concluding the negotiations as part of a single undertaking. The negotiations take place in special sessions of the Services Council and regular meetings of its relevant subsidiary committees or working parties.

Market access for non-agricultural products

The ministers agreed to launch tariff-cutting negotiations on all non-agricultural products. The aim is “to reduce, or as appropriate eliminate tariffs, including the reduction or elimination of tariff peaks, high tariffs, and tariff escalation, as well as non-tariff barriers, in particular on products of export interest to developing countries”. These negotiations shall take fully into account the special needs and interests of developing and least-developed countries, and recognize that these countries do not need to match or reciprocate in full tariff-reduction commitments by other participants. At the start, participants have to reach agreement on how (modalities) to conduct the tariff-cutting exercise (in the Tokyo Round, the participants used an agreed mathematical formula to cut tariffs across the board; in the Uruguay Round, participants negotiated cuts product by product). The agreed procedures would include studies and capacity-building measures that would help least-developed countries participate effectively in the negotiations. Back in Geneva, negotiators decided that the “modalities” should be agreed by 31 May 2003. When that date was missed, members agreed on 1 August 2004 on a new target: the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference in December 2005. While average customs duties are now at their lowest levels after eight GATT Rounds, certain tariffs continue to restrict trade, especially on exports of developing countries — for instance “tariff peaks”, which are relatively high tariffs, usually on “sensitive” products, amidst generally low tariff levels. For industrialized countries, tariffs of 15% and above are generally recognized as “tariff peaks. Another example is “tariff escalation”, in which higher import duties are applied on semi-processed products than on raw materials, and higher still on finished products. This practice protects domestic processing industries and discourages the development of processing activity in the countries where raw materials originate. The negotiations take place in a Market Access Negotiating Group.

Trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS)

TRIPS and public health. In the declaration, ministers stress that it is important to implement and interpret the TRIPS Agreement in a way that supports public health — by promoting both access to existing medicines and the creation of new medicines. They refer to their separate declaration on this subject. This separate declaration on TRIPS and public health is designed to respond to concerns about the possible implications of the TRIPS Agreement for access to medicines. It emphasizes that the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent member governments from acting to protect public health. It affirms governments’ right to use the agreement’s flexibilities in order to avoid any reticence the governments may feel. The separate declaration clarifies some of the forms of flexibility available, in particular compulsory licensing and parallel importing. (For an explanation of these issues, go to the main TRIPS pages on the WTO website) For the Doha agenda, this separate declaration sets two specific task. The TRIPS Council has to find a solution to the problems countries may face in making use of compulsory licensing if they have too little or no pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity, reporting to the General Council on this by the end of 2002.(this was achieved in August, 2003, see intellectual property section of the “Agreements” chapter.) The declaration also extends the deadline for least-developed countries to apply provisions on pharmaceutical patents until 1 January 2016.

Geographical indications — the registration system. Geographical indications are place names (in some countries also words associated with a place) used to identify products with particular characteristics because they come from specific places. The WTO TRIPS Council has already started work on a multilateral registration system for geographical indications for wines and spirits. The Doha Declaration sets a deadline for completing the negotiations: the Fifth Ministerial Conference in 2003. These negotiations take place in “special sessions” of the TRIPS Council.

Geographical indications — extending the “higher level of protection” to other products. The TRIPS Agreement provides a higher level of protection to geographical indications for wines and spirits. This means they should be protected even if there is no risk of misleading consumers or unfair competition. A number of countries want to negotiate extending this higher level to other products. Others oppose the move, and the debate in the TRIPS Council has included the question of whether the relevant provisions of the TRIPS Agreement provide a mandate for extending coverage beyond wines and spirits. The Doha Declaration notes that the TRIPS Council will handle this under the declaration’s paragraph 12 (which deals with implementation issues). Paragraph 12 offers two tracks: “(a) where we provide a specific negotiating mandate in this Declaration, the relevant implementation issues shall be addressed under that mandate; (b) the other outstanding implementation issues shall be addressed as a matter of priority by the relevant WTO bodies, which shall report to the Trade Negotiations Committee [TNC], established under paragraph 46 below, by the end of 2002 for appropriate action.” In papers circulated at the Ministerial Conference, member governments expressed different interpretations of this mandate. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, EU, Hungary, India, Liechtenstein, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand and Turkey argued that there is a clear mandate to negotiate immediately. Reviews of TRIPS provisions. Two reviews have been taking place in the TRIPS Council, as required by the TRIPS Agreement: a review of Article 27.3(b) which deals with patentability or non-patentability of plant and animal inventions, and the protection of plant varieties; and a review of the entire TRIPS Agreement (required by Article 71.1). The Doha Declaration says that work in the TRIPS Council on these reviews or any other implementation issue should also look at: the relationship between the TRIPS Agreement and the UN Convention on Biodiversity; the protection of traditional knowledge and folklore; and other relevant new developments that member governments raise in the review of the TRIPS Agreement. It adds that the TRIPS Council’s work on these topics is to be guided by the TRIPS Agreement’s objectives (Article 7) and principles (Article 8), and must take development fully into account.