Where countries have faced trade barriers and wanted them lowered, the negotiations have helped to liberalize trade. But the WTO is not just about liberalizing trade, and in some circumstances its rules support maintaining trade barriers — for example to protect consumers or prevent the spread of disease. At its heart are the WTO agreements which provide the legal ground-rules for international commerce. They are contracts, binding governments to keep their trade policies within agreed limits. Although negotiated and signed by governments, the goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business, while allowing governments to meet social and environmental objectives.
The system’s overriding purpose is to help trade flow as freely as possible — so long as there are no undesirable side-effects — because trade is viewed as important for economic development and well-being. This partly means removing obstacles, and also means ensuring that individuals, companies and governments know what the trade rules are and that they are transparent and predictable.
A third important side to the WTO’s work is the resolution of trade conflicts. Trade relations often involve conflicting interests. Agreements, including those painstakingly negotiated in the WTO system, need interpreting. The most harmonious way to settle these differences is through some neutral procedure based on an agreed legal foundation. That is the purpose behind the dispute settlement process written into the WTO agreements.