International Trade Law Research Guide

This guide features resources on international trade law.

WTO Organizational Structure & Decision Making


The WTO administers the multilateral trade deals annexed to the Marrakesh Agreement, monitors the trade policies of its members, provides a mechanism for settling trade-related disputes, and serves as a forum for multilateral trade negotiations.

Like its predecessor, the GATT, the WTO operates as a rules-based, member driven organization.  All major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, with each member having an equal voice.  Ordinarily, decisions are made by consensus.  A consensus is reached if no member formally objects to a decision.  In a limited range of circumstances, the WTO agreements allow for decisions to be made by voting, usually by a supermajority.

For further information about the WTO's organizational structure and governance, visit the Understanding the WTO section of the WTO's website or consult the secondary sources listed in the column to the right.

WTO Organizational Chart

Source:  WTO Website

Decision Making Bodies

The WTO's two most important decision-making bodies, the Ministerial Conference and the General Council, are described below, as are some of its subordinate decision-making bodies.  Consult the organizational chart above for a visual representation of the WTO's decision-making hierarchy. 

Ministerial Conference
The Ministerial Conference is the WTO’s highest decision-making body and includes all WTO members, represented by their respective trade ministers.  It meets at least once every two years and may make decisions on all matters with respect to any of the WTO’s multilateral agreements.  Visit this gateway page on the WTO's website to access declarations made and decisions taken at past Ministerial Conferences.

General Council
The General Council, which also includes all WTO members, is responsible for the WTO’s day-to-day decision-making in between ministerial conferences.   Most WTO members appoint a permanent representative or ambassador to serve on the council.  The General Council meets in three different capacities:

  • as the Dispute Settlement Body
  • as the Trade Policy Review Body
  • as the General Council (all matters not related to disputes or trade policy)

Bodies That Report to the General Council
Three subordinate councils, each responsible for a broad area of trade, report to the General Council:

  • The Council for Trade in Goods (Goods Council)
  • The Council for Trade in Services (Services Council)
  • The Council for Trade-Related Aspects of IP Rights (TRIPS Council)

Six committees with narrower responsibilities (ranging from trade negotiations to trade and development), as well as various working groups, also report to the General Council.  Many of these subordinate bodies, in turn, have their own sub-committees and working groups.

WTO Administration

The Director-General supervises the WTO’s professional staff, known as the Secretariat, and also serves as the WTO’s public face and spokesperson.

Based in Geneva, the Secretariat includes more than 600 professional staff members.  The Secretariat organizes the WTO's ministerial conferences and provides technical expertise and support to the WTO’s various councils and committees.  It also provides technical assistance to developing countries and advises governments seeking WTO membership.

Secondary Sources on WTO Governance