The International Trading System and Trade Negotiations

The Sustainable Development Goals establish a global partnership to improve the lives of the world's poor. This includes an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system as an essential goal.

The international trading system comprises many thousands of unilateral, bilateral, regional, and multilateral rules and agreements among more than two hundred nations.

Managing successfully this complex and rapidly evolving mass of political and economic arrangements implies understanding the changes occurring globally, the impact of trade in national development interests and priorities and fostering consensus on addressing trade barriers and commitment to more open and fairer international trade.

In this context, UNCTAD seeks to strengthen the capacities of developing countries to participate effectively in multilateral, regional and bilateral trade negotiations and maximize the use of trade agreements to achieve development outcomes.

Our focus areas include:


Regional Trade Agreements

Regional trade agreements are reciprocal trade agreements between two or more partners.

Their growth, expansion and deepening has been remarkable since the 1990s, going beyond traditional trade liberalization, encompassing disciplines going beyond WTO rules on issues such as services, investment, competition, government procurement environment and labour.

Challenges from the perspective of developing countries include:

  • Undertaking impact assessment to understand implications of new disciplines in terms of national policy-making.

  • Ensuring that agreements lead to develop complementarities that favour economies of scale and strengthening productive capacities, leading to enhance intra-regional trade opportunities and development gains from trade.

  • Ensuring coherence between negotiations of different agreements including the interface with multilateral rules.

In this area, UNCTAD's work on trade negotiations and commercial diplomacy supports countries in their engagement in different phases of negotiations, including those aimed at the development of negotiating modalities for trade in goods and services and providing analysis to facilitate the evaluation of alternative scenarios and provisions.

Support for WTO Accession

WTO accession is a challenging process involving wide-ranging legislative and executive actions by acceding countries.

Given the inadequacy of resources, expertise, institutional and regulatory frameworks on trade and WTO-related issues in most acceding countries, capacity building support to acceding countries is thus a critical element in efforts to manage their accession process.

UNCTAD's work on trade negotiations and commercial diplomacy helps acceding countries by:

  • Assisting national officials in preparing the initial stages of the accession process, particularly in This includes support during the pre-accession phase in defining national policy objectives, while emphasizing the imperative of national ownership.

  • Assisting in establishing at the national level "permanent" structures such as an inter-ministerial group to coordinate WTO matters especially and in developing a multi-stakeholder, inter-institutional approach that allows consultations and coordination between all relevant ministries and civil society, including parliamentarians and the private sector, on the accession process so as to facilitate the emergence of well-informed national consensus.

  • Sensitising the negotiating team, and other government agencies, private sector and academia, as well as key policy- makers, including parliamentarians on the GATT and WTO agreements, the accession process, as well as obligations and benefits of WTO membership.

  • Assisting in the preparation of the Memorandum on the Foreign Trade Regime. This includes review of draft written responses to questions posed by members and preparing the negotiating team for the meeting of their Working Party and with their trading partners.

  • Assisting in the review of domestic legislations for GATT and WTO consistency.

  • Undertaking short term sectoral/ impact studies on the impact of WTO accession on national economy.

  • Providing advice in trade policy formulation and implementation, particularly relating to the WTO accession negotiations.

  • Strengthening the capacities of trade supporting national institutional structures (including the academic community) through training and joint analysis of the relevant problem areas.

  • Post-accession activities including assistance to implement commitments made in the process of accession.

UNCTAD's accession assistance is designed to empower acceding countries to better define their trade objectives and integrate them effectively into their development plans, advance their interests in international trade negotiations, monitoring and enforcement, shape and sequence international regulatory practices, and take advantage of the trading opportunities of the multilateral trading system.

UNCTAD has provided and continues to provide technical assistance to acceding developing countries and countries with economies in transition, for example: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus, Bhutan, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Comoros, China, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Jordan, Iraq, Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Montenegro, Nepal, Timor-Leste, Russian Federation, Serbia, Sao Tome & Principe, Samoa, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Viet Nam, Vanuatu and Yemen. Some of them have already joined the WTO since: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cape Verde, China Jordan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Liberia, Montenegro, Nepal, Russian Federation, Samoa, Vanuatu, Viet Nam and Yemen.


Dispute Settlement in International Trade, Investment and Intellectual Property

A series of course modules designed to serve as pedagogical material that can assist lawyers, officials, academics and business persons in developing countries to understand the basic rules and jurisprudence of dispute settlement in international trade, investment and intellectual property.

The modules in the course are intended to help build a permanent capacity in countries for dispute settlement in World Trade Organization (WTO), and also in International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL).

Evolution of the international trading system and its trends from a development perspective

The Nairobi Maafikiano, the outcome document of UNCTAD 14, states that UNCTAD should “continue to monitor and assess the evolution of the international trading system and its trends from a development perspective, with particular attention to its potential contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals”.

In response to this mandate, the Trade and Development Board has discuss trends in international trade in goods and services and trade policy.

Discussions addressed trends in trade flows, both in goods and services, and various factors affecting patterns in international trade, including multilateral and regional trading systems and their interlinkages with national policies.