WTO and India

WTO Reforms: Empowering Developing Countries to Uphold Trade Multilateralism


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: WTO and related facts

Mains level: Transparency gaps and challenges withing WTO, Need for reforms and way ahead


Central Idea

  • The recently concluded G20 working group meeting on trade and investment placed significant emphasis on the imperative task of reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO). While this issue has long been on the global agenda, it is crucial to consider the broader global context.

What is Special and Differential Treatment (SDT) Principle Enshrined in WTO Agreements?

  • SDT principle is a fundamental aspect of the WTO agreements.
  • It recognizes the differences in development levels among member countries and aims to provide special rights and treatment to developing countries.
  • The principle acknowledges that developing nations face unique challenges and constraints in participating effectively in the global trading system.

Key Elements of SDT

  • Longer Transition Periods: Developing countries are granted extended timeframes to implement certain obligations and adjust their domestic policies to comply with WTO rules. This allows them to accommodate their unique circumstances and developmental needs.
  • Differential Tariff Reductions: Developing countries may be granted more lenient tariff reduction commitments compared to developed countries. They have the flexibility to reduce tariffs on a selective basis and protect certain sensitive sectors.
  • Special Safeguard Measures: Developing countries can employ special safeguard mechanisms to protect domestic industries from import surges or market disruptions caused by increased competition. These measures allow temporary deviations from WTO commitments to mitigate adverse effects on vulnerable sectors.
  • Technical Assistance and Capacity Building: Developed countries and international organizations provide technical assistance and capacity-building support to help developing nations enhance their trade-related infrastructure, institutions, and human resources. This assistance aims to strengthen their ability to effectively participate in global trade.
  • Preferential Treatment in Regional and Bilateral Agreements: Developing countries are often offered preferential trade agreements or schemes by developed countries, granting them favorable market access and trade preferences. These agreements help stimulate export growth and promote economic development.
  • Flexibility in Intellectual Property Rights (IPR): Developing countries may have more relaxed obligations related to intellectual property rights, allowing them to adopt measures that protect public health, promote access to affordable medicines, and support domestic innovation.
  • Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures: Developing countries may receive technical assistance to comply with TBT and SPS measures, which include regulations related to product standards, labeling, and food safety. This support facilitates their participation in global trade by addressing capacity constraints.
  • Special and Differential Treatment Monitoring: The WTO has established mechanisms to monitor and review the implementation of SDT provisions. This ensures that developing countries’ concerns are addressed and that they receive the support they are entitled to under the SDT principle

The Appellate Body Crisis Within the WTO

  • Blocking Appointments: The United States has blocked the appointment of new members to the Appellate Body since 2017, preventing it from functioning effectively. This has led to a significant reduction in the number of active members, impeding the body’s ability to hear and resolve trade disputes.
  • Depletion of Membership: Due to the lack of appointments, the Appellate Body’s membership has dropped below the minimum required number to constitute a quorum. As a result, pending and future appeals have been left unresolved, leading to a growing backlog of cases.
  • Paralysis of Dispute Settlement: The inability of the Appellate Body to hear and decide on trade disputes has resulted in a paralysis of the WTO’s dispute settlement system. Member countries have limited options for resolving disputes, potentially leading to increased trade tensions and the risk of unilateral actions without proper adjudication.
  • Concerns Raised by the United States: The US has expressed concerns about the Appellate Body’s perceived overreach, its interpretation of WTO rules, and what it sees as judicial activism. It has called for reforms to address these issues before approving new appointments.
  • Implications for the Multilateral Trading System: The absence of a functioning Appellate Body undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the WTO’s dispute settlement system. It raises concerns about the stability of the multilateral trading system and the enforceability of WTO rules.
  • Discussions on Reform: WTO members have engaged in discussions to address the concerns raised by the US and find a way to restore the functionality of the Appellate Body. Various proposals and ideas have been put forward to reform the body while ensuring transparency, accountability, and adherence to WTO rules.
  • Alternative Dispute Settlement Mechanisms: In light of the Appellate Body crisis, some countries have explored alternative mechanisms for resolving trade disputes. Bilateral or plurilateral agreements and arbitration panels are being considered as possible alternatives to the WTO’s traditional dispute settlement process.

What is Plurilateralism and Multilateral Governance?

  • Plurilateralism refers to the approach of negotiating agreements among a subset of countries within the broader framework of multilateralism. In other words, it involves a group of countries voluntarily coming together to establish rules and commitments on specific issues, even if not all WTO members participate.
  • Multilateral governance, on the other hand, refers to the process of managing and governing global issues through the participation and collaboration of multiple countries within a multilateral framework. It aims to ensure inclusive decision-making, transparency, and adherence to established rules and principles.


The Relationship Between Plurilateralism and Multilateral Governance

  • Plurilateralism as a Complement to Multilateralism: Plurilateral agreements are often seen as a complement to multilateralism. They allow a subset of countries with a common interest or objective to move forward and establish rules or commitments that might be difficult to achieve at the multilateral level due to diverse positions and interests of all WTO members. Plurilateral agreements can serve as building blocks and help facilitate progress within the multilateral trading system.
  • Multilateral Governance of Plurilateral Agreements: While plurilateral agreements involve a smaller group of countries, it is important to ensure that they are governed within a multilateral framework. Multilateral governance ensures that the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, and inclusivity are upheld in the negotiation and implementation of plurilateral agreements. It ensures that the outcomes of these agreements are integrated into the broader WTO rulebook and apply equally to all members.
  • Inclusivity and Trust in Multilateral Governance: Multilateral governance plays a crucial role in addressing the trust deficit between developed and developing countries. In the context of plurilateral agreements, it is essential to ensure that non-participating members are not forced into agreements they are unwilling to join. Multilateral governance should uphold inclusivity, respect the rights of non-participants, and create mechanisms to bridge the trust gap between countries with varying levels of development and interests.
  • Coherence and Consistency with Multilateral Rules: Plurilateral agreements must align with the existing multilateral rules and principles of the WTO. They should not undermine the core principles of non-discrimination, most-favored-nation treatment, and transparency that underpin the multilateral trading system. Multilateral governance ensures that plurilateral agreements are coherent with and contribute to the overall objectives of the WTO.


Facts for prelims

What is the WTO’s Ministerial Conference?

  • The MC is at the very top of WTO’s organizational chart.
  • It meets once every two years and can take decisions on all matters under any multilateral trade agreement.
  • Unlike other organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, WTO does not delegate power to a board of directors or an organizational chief.
  • All decisions at the WTO are made collectively and through consensus among member countries at varied councils and committees.
  • This year’s conference took place in Geneva, Switzerland.

The transparency gap within the WTO

  • Notification Requirements: WTO member countries are obligated to notify all their laws, regulations, and measures that affect trade to ensure transparency. However, compliance with this obligation has been lacking, leading to a transparency gap. Many countries fail to provide timely and comprehensive notifications, hindering the ability of other members to stay informed about trade-related measures and potential impacts.
  • Incomplete or Inaccurate Notifications: Even when notifications are provided, they may be incomplete or inaccurate, further widening the transparency gap. This lack of comprehensive information makes it challenging for other members to assess the potential trade implications of new measures or to effectively engage in consultations and negotiations.
  • Lack of Timeliness: Delays in providing notifications contribute to the transparency gap. However, significant delays in notifications limit the ability of other members to respond promptly or seek clarification, undermining the transparency and predictability of the WTO system.
  • Lack of Clarity and Understandability: Notifications can sometimes lack clarity, making it difficult for other members to fully comprehend the scope and implications of trade-related measures. Clear and understandable notifications are essential for promoting transparency and facilitating effective engagement among WTO members.
  • Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement: The monitoring and enforcement of notification requirements remain weak within the WTO system. The lack of robust mechanisms to ensure compliance with notification obligations hampers efforts to address the transparency gap.
  • Capacity Constraints: Some developing countries face capacity constraints in fulfilling their notification obligations effectively. Limited resources and technical expertise may hinder their ability to provide comprehensive and timely notifications.
  • Accessibility of Notifications: The accessibility and availability of notifications can also contribute to the transparency gap. Ensuring that notifications are easily accessible to all members, including developing countries, through user-friendly platforms and language accessibility measures can help improve transparency within the WTO.

Way Forward

  • Strong Leadership and Engagement: Member countries, particularly middle powers like India, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa, should take a leadership role in driving the WTO reform agenda. They can actively engage in discussions, negotiations, and consensus-building to push for meaningful reforms that reflect the interests and concerns of developing countries.
  • Strengthening Special and Differential Treatment (SDT): Developing countries should advocate for stronger SDT provisions within the WTO. Developing countries should resist any attempts to weaken SDT provisions under the guise of reform and emphasize the importance of addressing asymmetries in the global trading system.
  • Revitalizing the Appellate Body: Member countries, apart from the United States, should explore ways to either persuade the US to change its position or find alternative mechanisms to ensure the effective functioning of the Appellate Body. Reestablishing a fully operational Appellate Body is crucial for maintaining a robust and reliable dispute settlement mechanism within the WTO.
  • Balancing Plurilateral and Multilateral Approaches: While plurilateral agreements can offer opportunities for progress on specific issues, it is important to strike a balance with multilateralism. Plurilateral negotiations should be conducted within a framework that upholds multilateral governance principles, ensuring inclusivity, transparency, and consistency with broader WTO rules. Forced participation should be avoided, and efforts should be made to bridge the trust deficit between developed and developing countries.
  • Transparency and Compliance: Member countries should prioritize enhancing transparency and compliance with notification requirements. Timely, accurate, and comprehensive notifications of trade-related measures are essential for promoting predictability and understanding among WTO members.
  • Inclusive Decision-Making: Decision-making processes within the WTO should be more inclusive, giving developing countries a meaningful voice and ensuring their concerns are taken into account.
  • Technical Assistance and Capacity Building: Developed countries should provide technical assistance and capacity-building support to help developing countries strengthen their institutional and human resources to effectively participate in the global trading system.
  • Renewed Commitment to Multilateralism: Member countries should reaffirm their commitment to the principles of multilateralism, including non-discrimination, transparency, and cooperation. Emphasizing the importance of the rules-based multilateral trading system and collective problem-solving can help rebuild trust and foster a conducive environment for constructive engagement and negotiations.


  • Trade multilateralism, though facing challenges, remains crucial for countries like India. As the current G20 Presidency holder, India should collaborate with other nations to drive the agenda for WTO reforms, focusing on making trade multilateralism more inclusive. By strengthening SDT provisions, revitalizing the appellate body, promoting multilateral governance for plurilateral agreements, and enhancing transparency, developing countries can empower themselves to safeguard their interests and ensure a fair and balanced global trading system.

Also read:

WTO panel rules against India in IT tariffs dispute



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