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International Standards and the WTO

by S. Charnovitz
Paper for the Global Forum on Trade, Environment and Development ()


The purpose of this paper is to provide background on the topic of international standards and their relationship to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Some international standards describe products (e.g., fish size), while others describe the processes and production methods used in making the characteristics of products. Standard-setting is intended to be a rational process that leads to technically preferable solutions. As two commentators explain, the influence of standards derives from the truth presumably embodied in science and technique, from the righteousness presumably embodied in the principles of governance by which the standards bodies operate (equality, fairness, nonpartisanship), and from the presumed self-interest of the lower-level actors that comprise them.1 While standards have an enormous potential for increasing efficiency and thereby boosting economic growth, concerns exist as to whether the WTO’s utilization of international standards may exacerbate the disparities between rich and poor countries. The problem is that developing countries lack capacity to reap all the benefits of international standards. To some extent this problem has already been acknowledged, and governments are now stepping up efforts to provide more technical assistance to developing countries. The paper has seven parts. Part I explores the meaning of the term “international standard” and explains why a broad definition is adopted in this study. Part II introduces a typology for international standards, particularly as they relate to the WTO. Part III discusses why international standards are important to economic development and growth. Part IV examines the WTO provisions that relate to international standards using the categories of: re-legislation, requirement, recommendation, exemption, presumption, technical assistance, and cooperation. Part V provides a brief review of WTO implementation of standards-related provisions through WTO committees. Part VI describes key standard-setting organizations that promulgate standards relating to trade. Part VII concludes.

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