Early View Article - An Anatomy of Accountability at the WTO

An Anatomy of Accountability at the WTO

Accountability is fundamental to democratic governance and good administration, but its multiple meanings and claimants challenge international organizations. Who is accountable implies who can be accountable, and the matters for which some process exists to hold them accountable through some effect on their behavior. The answers to those questions in the World Trade Organization (WTO) will differ depending on who is asking and on the values to be promoted, from international order, procedural fairness, prosperity and justice to sustainable development. An anatomy of accountability in the WTO finds many possible ‘accountability regimes’, illuminating the tension between vertical and horizontal accountability (domestic responsiveness and international obligation) and the challenge in choosing among horizontal accountability regimes (promise keeping by members): efforts to satisfy any one accountability claim can make achieving the others more difficult.

Policy Implications

  • International organizations such as the WTO face a choice between horizontal accountability for international obligations and vertical democratic responsiveness.
  • Institutional designers must choose among differing conceptions of the purposes for which organizations ought to be accountable, because the processes through which such accountability can be pursued will not be identical.
  • Members of the WTO cannot be simultaneously accountable for commercial liberalization, social justice and sustainable development; nor can they be simultaneously accountable to each other and to everyone affected by the WTO.
  • Fidelity to the aspirations of the WTO, which may conflict with a narrow reading of reciprocal obligation, is better managed in surveillance mechanisms rather than via the dispute settlement system.
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