In the run-up to the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Ministerial Conference in December 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya, the Organization's Accessions Division has been particularly active. While twenty-two accession negotiations are in progress, Kazakhstan and Liberia have made major strides this year and are on track to be accepted as WTO Members at the 2015 Ministerial Conference.
The WTO accessions process involves ensuring that the acceding Member, from the date of accession, will be able to abide by the trade commitments in the WTO Agreement (and the 15 or so treaties annexed to it). When a country applies for membership, a Working Party of WTO Members is established to conduct the negotiations. The negotiations proceed on two tracks: a multilateral track and a bilateral track. Many countries, especially developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs), often receive technical assistance from international organizations, national institutions, and private parties, as is the case with Liberia, which received the assistance of King & Spalding, among others.
The multilateral track aims to ensure that the acceding Member's domestic trade regime is in line with the rules-based international trade system that dates to the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. To a certain extent, this is a "fake" negotiation, because whether to align with WTO rules is "non-negotiable." Some countries—especially LDCs—however, may take advantage of transitional periods to adjust internal laws and policies.
On the bilateral track, the "real" negotiations proceed as current WTO Members with specific trading interests engage with the acceding Member to determine the level of commitments the acceding Member will make regarding intellectual property protection and liberalization of trade in goods and services. The results of these "bilateral" negotiations are compiled and then applied to the entire WTO Membership under the Most-Favored-Nation rule.
The process can be lengthy. China and Russia negotiated, respectively, for 15 years and 18 years prior to accession, and the still-ongoing Algerian negotiations began in 1987. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan concluded its negotiations in 2.5 years.
In the case of Kazakhstan, accession now is secure after more than 19 years of negotiations. The negotiation process concluded when the General Council accepted Kazakhstan's "accession package" of commitments in July 2015. Kazakhstan must complete its internal ratification process, and then the Ministerial Conference will welcome it in Nairobi as a full WTO Member.
As for Liberia, an LDC that applied for Membership in 2007, the accessions process is nearing its conclusion, as reported at the Working Party's July meeting. The bilateral negotiations have been completed, and remaining issues are to be finalized at the October Working Party meeting, in time to allow formalities to be concluded before the December Ministerial Conference.
These accessions reveal the continued relevance of the WTO as a negotiating body as countries still seek to join this club of 161 Members representing over 95 percent of world trade and global GDP.