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History of the WTO: Part One

On November 30th, United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk will be in Geneva, Switzerland for the 7th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization. This is the first of two installments on the history of this organization.

Although the World Trade Organization (WTO) is only 14 years old, its history can be traced back to a period just after World War II.

In 1947, the world's major trading countries signed the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT) which laid the ground rules for the multilateral trading system. After efforts to establish an international trade organization failed in 1948, the GATT also served as a provisional forum for members to address international trade matters. Over the years, GATT members conducted a series of multilateral negotiations known as "rounds" to lower trade barriers between them.

The first five GATT trade rounds after 1947 focused on lowering tariffs. The Kennedy round in the 1960s expanded discussions from tariff cuts to more general trade rules, leading to the negotiation of the GATT anti-dumping agreement. In the 1970s, participants in the Tokyo round of talks lowered tariffs further and concluded agreements -- which only some members joined -- on non-tariff trade barriers, such as technical standards.

The following round, launched in 1986, built upon the progress made in the Tokyo round and in previous negotiations. Known as the Uruguay round, it was, up to that time, the largest and most comprehensive trade round. In the Uruguay round, GATT members agreed to lower tariffs, address non-tariff barriers, and extend trade rules into several new areas, including trade in services and intellectual property.

At the conclusion of the Uruguay round, representatives from most of the 123 participants signed a declaration in Marrakesh, morocco creating the world trade organization and bringing the agreements and commitments concluded during the round under the new organization. On January 1, 1995, the WTO officially replaced the GATT and the informal forum it provided for more than four decades.

Today, the WTO is a vital international institution. It has 153 members and, collectively, they represent 95 percent of world trade.


To follow the WTO Ministerial, please visit the WTO Ministerial page here.