Barriers to Universal Membership of the World Trade Organization

By Toohey, Lisa | Australian International Law Journal, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Barriers to Universal Membership of the World Trade Organization


Toohey, Lisa, Australian International Law Journal


Abstract

This article examines the feasibility of achieving the World Trade Organization's stated aspiration of achieving universal membership. The article first examines the requirements for accession, and argues that the commonly-used definition of universal membership--accession to the WTO by all members of the United Nations--is too narrow having regard to the accession provisions of the relevant WTO Agreements. A broader interpretation of the concept of universal accession reveals the true extent of the 'accession issue' by showing the number of accessions that may be negotiated in future. The article then considers the potential for truly universal membership of the WTO, and the obstacles to that being achieved. This broader potential membership includes a very high proportion of less- and least-developed countries, micro-states, and transitional economies, all of which face particular accession challenges that are examined in the final parr of the article.

Introduction

2012 was an exceptional year for the expansion of the membership of the World Trade Organization ('WTO'). Since 2008, no new member had been admitted to the organisation, which further compounded the sense of malaise about the efficacy of the organisation in the face of the stalled Doha Round negotiations. However, in 2012 the WTO admitted four new members through the accession process: Montenegro, Samoa, the Russian Federation and Vanuatu. Negotiations were also concluded for the membership of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos and Tajikistan, paving the way for their accession in early 2013.

These accessions will bring WTO membership to 159, and the individual accessions had symbolic significance for a number of reasons. The successful conclusion of negotiations for Vanuatu, Samoa and Laos, all less- (or least-) developed countries ('LDCs'), (1) was portrayed as a celebration of the WTO's development agenda. The Russian Federation, Montenegro and Tajikistan are all former socialist, centrally planned economies, now 'brought into the fold' within a quintessentially neoliberal institution. Finally, the accessions of the Russian Federation and Vanuatu were two of the longest and most politically challenging accession processes ever faced by the WTO. Commencing in June 1993 and July 1996 respectively, each was fraught with numerous political controversies that delayed and threatened to derail accession at various stages. (2)

The accession of the Russian Federation completes the WTO membership of the BRICs group of countries (Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa), powerful, populous and rapidly developing states predicted to be the future key economic powers. (3) The accessions in the past decade of Vietnam, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, plus China in 2001, have rounded out WTO participation by the most economically significant economies in the world. According to recent statistics, WTO members now account for more than 97 per cent of world trade. (4)

However, the WTO aspires to universal membership, which is generally defined as membership of the WTO by all 192 member states of the United Nations ('UN'). (5) Universal membership by this definition requires 25 further states to complete accession negotiations that are already underway, and a further 14 states to commence the process.

How feasible is the concept of universal membership? As indicated above, the recent flurry of accessions was unusual. This article examines the obstacles to universal membership of the WTO, focusing on the substantive, procedural and practical difficulties that the remaining acceding members face. (6) First, it explains the concept of universal membership, and the shortcomings of UN membership as a yardstick, pointing out that the potential membership of the WTO is much broader than the UN-based definition suggests. Second, the rules for WTO membership are explained, with particular emphasis on accession. …

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