International Standards a Key Solution to Address Barriers to Trade

By Steele, Rob | International Trade Forum, July-September 2012 | Go to article overview

International Standards a Key Solution to Address Barriers to Trade


Steele, Rob, International Trade Forum


The gradual disappearance of tariffs since the 1948 birth of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has rum been counter-balanced by a growing presence of non-tariff measures (NTMs) in international trade. The World Trade Organization Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (WTO/TBT) recognizes that access to markets can be impeded by the use of technical regulations and standards that can vary from country to country and, if set arbitrarily, can be used or perceived as disguised market protection in the form of non-tariff barriers to trade. It is important to differentiate technical regulations from standards (see definitions page 35).

To avoid this scenario, countries should consider, for example, using international standards as one way of describing how to implement technical regulations, a process supported by the non-governmental International Organization for Standardization (ISO). While ISO standards are not mandatory, as they are developed as voluntary documents, they distil international consensus from the broadest possible base of stakeholder groups with expert input coming from those closest to the need for standards and the results of implementing them. In this way, ISO standards are widely respected and accepted by public and private sectors internationally.

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The WTO, established in 1995, is an international organization that effectively lays down legal ground rules for international trade. Of particular interest and importance to standardizers are WTO agreements on technical barriers to trade (TBTs) and the application of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. It is widely recognized that lack of capacity to implement WTO agreements, particularly those on TBTs and SPS measures, can constitute a major hindrance to trade. Considering growing emphasis on trade as a means to underpin economic development, especially in developing countries, this means there is an urgent and crucial need to address the issue of standards and technical regulations to allow countries to participate effectively in the multilateral trading system.

In the case of the WTO SPS agreement, international standards are defined as those developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the International Plant Protection Convention and the World Organization for Animal Health. There are no such definitions of international standards as a result of the WTO TBT agreement and no organizations have been named as developers of international standards under the agreement. There are ongoing discussions within the WTO TBT committee about the need to provide greater clarity around the definition of international standards so that countries, in particular developing countries, can decide where to channel scarce financial and technical resources to participate in the work of international standardizing bodies.

The TBT and SPS cases demonstrate that WTO agreements can have a significant influence on standardization, both at the national and international level. The WTO has published a Code of Good Practice for the Preparation, Adoption and Application of Standards as annex 3 to the WTO/TBT Agreement. Ensuring compliance with the code should be a major part of the operations of a national standards body (NSB),

In its second triennial review of the TBT agreement in 2000 and reconfirming its position in the fifth review in 2009, the WTO TBT Committee agreed on principles that should be observed when international standards are elaborated. There are six principles covering transparency, openness, impartiality and consensus, effectiveness and relevance, coherence, and addressing the concerns of developing countries. These principles should be observed by all international standardizing bodies as well as NSBs. In a joint paper by the ISO and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) that was submitted to the WTO TBT committee in March 2012, both organizations state that the six TBT principles are fundamental pillars on which international standardization should be built.

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