The history of the GATT can be divided into three phases: the first, from 1947 until the Torquay Round, largely concerned which commodities would be covered by the agreement and freezing existing tariff levels. A second phase, encompassing three rounds, from 1959 to 1979, focused on reducing tariffs. The third phase, consisting only of the Uruguay Round from 1986 to 1994, extended the agreement fully to new areas such as intellectual property, services, capital, and agriculture. Out of this round the WTO was born.
GATT signatories occasionally negotiated new trade agreements that all countries would enter into. Each set of agreements was called a round. In general, each agreement bound members to reduce certain tariffs. Usually this would include many special-case treatments of individual products, with exceptions or modifications for each country.
The precursor organization to the GATT, called the International Trade Organization (ITO), was first proposed in February 1946 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The negotiating countries of the ITO began parallel negotiations for the GATT as a way to introduce early tariff cuts. The plan called for the ITO to take control over GATT, once the ITO was finalized. Owning to the ITO failed to be implemented by the United States, GATT was the only organization left. On January 1, 1948 the agreement was signed by 23 countries: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Ceylon, Chile, China, Cuba, the Czechoslovak Republic, France, India, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Southern Rhodesia, Syria, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. According to GATT's own estimates, the negotiations created 123 agreements that covered 45,000 tariff items that related to approximately one-half of world trade or $10 billion in trade.
The second round took place in 1949 in Annecy, France. 13 countries took part in the round. The main focus of the talks was more tariff reductions, around 5000 total.
The fourth round returned to Geneva in 1955 and lasted until May 1956. 26 countries took part in the round. $2.5 billion in tariffs were eliminated or reduced.
The fifth round occurred once more in Geneva and lasted from 1960 to 1962. The talks were named after U.S. Treasury Secretary and former Under Secretary of State, Douglas Dillon, who first proposed the talks. 26 countries took part in the round. Along with reducing over $4.9 billion in tariffs, it also yielded discussion relating to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC).
The sixth round was the last to take place in Geneva from 1964 until 1967 and was named after the late US President Kennedy in his memory. 62 countries took part in the round. Concessions were made on $40 billion worth of tariffs. Some of the GATT negotiation rules were also more clearly defined.
Reduced tariffs and established new regulations aimed at controlling the proliferation of non-tariff barriers and voluntary export restrictions. 102 countries countries took part in the round. Concessions were made on $190 billion worth.
The Uruguay Round began in 1986. It was the most ambitious round to date, hoping to expand the competence of the GATT to important new areas such as services, capital, intellectual property, textiles, and agriculture. 123 countries took part in the round.
Agriculture was essentially exempted from previous agreements as it was given special status in the areas of import quotas and export subsidies, with only mild caveats. However, by the time of the Uruguay round, many countries considered the exception of agriculture to be sufficiently glaring that they refused to sign a new deal without some movement on agricultural products. These fourteen countries came to be known as the "Cairns Group", and included mostly small and medium sized agricultural exporters such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, and New Zealand.
The Agreement on Agriculture of the Uruguay Round continues to be the most substantial trade liberalization agreement in agricultural products in the history of trade negotiations. The goals of the agreement were to improve market access for agricultural products, reduce domestic support of agriculture in the form of price-distorting subsidies and quotas, eliminate over time export subsidies on agricultural products and to harmonize to the extent possible sanitary and phystosanitary measures between member countries.
Of the original GATT members, only the SFR Yugoslavia has not rejoined the WTO. Since FR Yugoslavia, (renamed to Serbia and Montenegro and with membership negotiations later split in two), is not recognised as a direct SFRY successor state; therefore, its application is considered a new (non-GATT) one. The contracting parties who founded the WTO ended official agreement of the "GATT 1947" terms on December 31, 1995.
Whereas GATT was a set of rules agreed upon by nations, the WTO is an institutional body. The WTO expanded its scope from traded goods to trade within the service sector and intellectual property rights. Although it was designed to serve multilateral agreements, during several rounds of GATT negotiations (particularly the Tokyo Round) plurilateral agreements created selective trading and caused fragmentation among members. WTO arrangements are generally a multilateral agreement settlement mechanism of GATT. The debatable issue is recognition of human rights under GATT.
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