Relationship between WTO and MEA rules back to top
There are over 250 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) dealing
with various environmental issues which are currently in force. About 20 of
these include provisions that can affect trade. For instance, they may
contain measures that prohibit trade in certain species or products, or that
allow countries to restrict trade in certain circumstances.
A question that may arise is whether measures under a multilateral agreement
are compatible with WTO rules. For example, a multilateral agreement could
authorize trade in a specific product between its parties, but ban trade in
the same product with countries that have not signed the agreement.
This could be found to be incompatible with WTO’s non-discrimination
principle known as “most favoured nation treatment”, which requires
countries to grant equivalent treatment to the same (or “like”) products
imported from any WTO member country. On the other hand, WTO rules do allow
members to derogate from their obligations in some cases, for instance where
a measure is aimed at the conservation of natural resources, provided
certain conditions are met.
No formal dispute involving a measure under a multilateral environmental
agreement has so far been brought to the WTO. However, the complexity of the
relationship between environmental and trade rules was highlighted in the
“Chile — Swordfish” case.
At the 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference, members agreed to negotiate on the
relationship between WTO rules and the multilateral environmental
agreements, particularly those that contain “specific trade obligations” (STOs).
These negotiations take place in special sessions of the Trade and
Environment Committee. Members have agreed that the scope of these
negotiations would be limited to applicability of WTO rules to WTO members
that have signed the multilateral environmental agreement under
Since the beginning of the negotiations, discussions have focused on the
scope of the negotiating mandate (including the definition of specific trade
obligations) and on potential outcomes of the negotiations. In parallel,
members have also embarked on an exercise of sharing their national experiences in
the negotiation and domestic implementation of trade measures under
multilateral environmental agreements.