WTO Law and Sustainable Development

Authored by: Markus W. Gehring

Routledge Handbook of International Law

Print publication date:  December  2008
Online publication date:  January  2009

Print ISBN: 9780415418768
eBook ISBN: 9780203884621
Adobe ISBN: 9781134113095


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This chapter focuses on the interface between trade and sustainable development. It first gives an introduction and overview of WTO law then briefly examines the historical development of the WTO as a legal order explaining the most important legal principles, such as most favored nation and national treatment. After a short explanation of the dispute settlement system, the chapter illustrates some of the most important sustainable development challenges as defined in the World Summit on Sustainable Development. It proposes three fields of study of the trade – sustainable development interface: negotiation, trade disputes and innovative instruments. The chapter discusses how limited attempts have been made to introduce the concept of sustainable development into the international trading system. This hesitation, largely due to a “trade-only” ethos of the organization, was only overcome after certain seminal disputes had been decided. After the decision in U.S.–Shrimp that sustainable development figured prominently in the Doha Development Agenda. Two more recent disputes help to illustrate the nature of sustainable development arguments made in the WTO dispute settlement. The chapter then points to innovative mechanisms that have been used by WTO member states to integrate trade and environment or trade and sustainable development more broadly.

The chapter argues that the relationship between WTO law and sustainable development is not yet fully determined. To ensure that international trade law can deliver on sustainable development in the current context, a constructive, integrated approach is needed to address overlaps between social development, economic development and environmental protection. This approach must focus specifically on achieving solid results for developing countries and for development in general.

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