The World Trade Organization came into force on January 1, 1995, fully replacing the previous GATT Secretariat as the organization responsible for administering the international trade regime. The basic structure of the WTO includes the following bodies (see organizational diagram):
- The Ministerial Conference, which is composed of international trade ministers from all member countries. This is the governing body of the WTO, responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization and making all final decisions on agreements under its wings. The Ministerial Conference meets at least once every two years. Although voting can take place, decisions are generally taken by consensus, a process that can at times be difficult, particularly in a body composed of 136 very different members.
- The General Council, composed of senior representatives (usually ambassador level) of all members. It is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day business and management of the WTO, and is based at the WTO headquarters in Geneva. In practice, this is the key decision-making arm of the WTO for most issues. Several of the bodies described below report directly to the General Council.
- The Trade Policy Review Body is also composed of all the WTO members, and oversees the Trade Policy Review Mechanism, a product of the Uruguay Round. It periodically reviews the trade policies and practices of all member states. These reviews are intended to provide a general indication of how states are implementing their obligations, and to contribute to improved adherence by the WTO parties to their obligations.
- The Dispute Settlement Body is also composed of all the WTO members. It oversees the implementation and effectiveness of the dispute resolution process for all WTO agreements, and the implementation of the decisions on WTO disputes. Disputes are heard and ruled on by dispute resolution panels chosen individually for each case, and the permanent Appellate Body that was established in 1994. Dispute resolution is mandatory and binding on all members. A final decision of the Appellate Body can only be reversed by a full consensus of the Dispute Settlement Body.
- The Councils on Trade in Goods and Trade in Services operate under the mandate of the General Council and are composed of all members. They provide a mechanism to oversee the details of the general and specific agreements on trade in goods (such as those on textiles and agriculture) and trade in services. There is also a Council for the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, dealing with just that agreement and subject area.
- The Secretariat and Director General of the WTO reside in Geneva, in the old home of GATT. The Secretariat now numbers just under 550 people, and undertakes the administrative functions of running all aspects of the organization. The Secretariat has no legal decision-making powers but provides vital services, and often advice, to those who do. The Secretariat is headed by the Director General, who is elected by the members.
- The Committee on Trade and Development and Committee on Trade and Environment are two of the several committees continued or established under the Marrakech Agreement in 1994. They have specific mandates to focus on these relationships, which are especially relevant to how the WTO deals with sustainable development issues. The Committee on Trade and Development was established in 1965. The forerunner to the Committee on Trade and Environment (the Group on Environmental Measures and International Trade) was established in 1971, but did not meet until 1992. Both Committees are now active as discussion grounds but do not actually negotiate trade rules. The mandate of the CTE is discussed in greater detail in section 3.1.1.