In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trade and Development in International Law

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Definitions
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
  • Right to Development
  • International Law of Development
  • Third World Approaches to International Law
  • Lomé, Cotonou, and North–South Trade Agreements
  • International Commodity Agreements
  • Agricultural Trade and Development
  • Government Procurement and Development
  • Trade Dispute Settlement and Development
  • Doha Development Round

International Law Trade and Development in International Law
Charles-Emmanuel Côté
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0157


The intersection between trade and development in international law appeared in the wake of the decolonization movement, in the second half of the 20th century. Newly independent states joined the older Latin American republics in the shared awareness of their underdevelopment and identified themselves as the Third World, most notably after the landmark Bandung conference of 1955. Developing countries soon gained majority in the UN General Assembly and tried to reshape the rules of international law in order to restore fairness in the multilateral trading system. Its governing instrument, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was perceived as fundamentally flawed since it did not address development and the typical economic issues associated with it. The organization of the first UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964 and its establishment as an organ of the General Assembly were instrumental in the proposal of rules to take developing countries into account in international trade law. The GATT incorporated special and differential treatment (S&DT) provisions for developing countries, and other legal regimes were created to deal with issues of specific interest to them, such as international trade in commodities. This process culminated with the attempt by developing countries to establish a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the 1970s. The NIEO agenda was dominant on the international stage and in legal thinking on trade and development until the early 1990s. International recognition of a right to development connected the topic of trade and development with the field of human rights. The establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 and globalization profoundly shook the foundations of the rules governing trade and development. It marked a paradigmatic shift in international law, where trade liberalization came largely to be seen as the key to development. Renewed critical theories emerged fleshing out Third World approaches to international law, dealing notably with trade-related issues. The topic of trade and development remains relevant in early-21st-century international law, as exemplified by the Doha Development Round of multilateral trade negotiations and by the fact that most WTO members still identify as developing countries in the world trading system. The need to further address the issues faced by developing countries remains pressing. The topic of trade and development focuses on North-South or South-South trade relations and must be disambiguated from the concept of sustainable development. The latter does not deal specifically with developing countries and refers to development that meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

Reference Works

The topic of trade and development embraces a wide range of legal issues on which the insight of critical legal theories, history, political science, economics, and sociology is essential to grasp all the intricacies. These reference works offer a comprehensive view of all these perspectives, focusing on the multilateral trading system. Rolland 2012, Thomas and Trachtman 2009, Taxil 1998, and Hudec 2010 provide systematic treatments of developing countries in World Trade Organization (WTO) law. Buscaglia, et al. 1997 deals with the topic from the angle of law and economics scholarship, while Lee, et al. 2011 is written from the perspective of law and development. The transversal issue of aid for trade looks at helping developing countries to fully participate in the world trading system by reducing trade costs for economic operators, through a wide variety of measures. Njinkeu and Cameron 2008 deals with this increasingly important issue from the standpoint of developing countries. To complete these reference books, the WTO’s Trade and Development webpage gives access to all WTO documents relevant to the topic. Finally, Sacerdoti 2015 provides a useful account of the (failed) attempt by developing countries to establish a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

  • Buscaglia, Edgardo, William Ratliff, and Robert Cooter, eds. The Law and Economics of Development. Economics of Legal Relationships 3. Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1997.

    A collective work providing theoretical background on law and economics applied to developing countries. It includes some case studies on Latin American countries.

  • Hudec, Robert E. Developing Countries in the GATT Legal System. New ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511976810

    A new edition of an influential book originally published in 1987 by a leading scholar on international trade law, with a new introduction by a former World Bank economist. The book provides a historical and critical analysis of the relationship of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) with developing countries, challenging the soundness of special and differential treatment and nonreciprocal treatment of developing countries.

  • Lee, Yong-Shik, Gary N. Horlick, Won-Mog Choi, and Tomer Broude, eds. Law and Development Perspective on International Trade Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    A collective work using the law and development perspective to critically assess the rules of international trade, in a pragmatic rather than theoretical fashion. The authors study the impact of international trade law on the economic and social development of developing countries, at the multilateral and regional levels.

  • Njinkeu, Dominique, and Hugo Cameron, eds. Aid for Trade and Development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    A collective work dealing with the transversal issue of aid for trade as a tool to foster development within the WTO. It presents the ideas elaborated through research conducted by the International Lawyers and Economists against Poverty (ILEAP), with special attention to bringing voices and experiences from developing countries.

  • Rolland, Sonia E. Development at the World Trade Organization. International Economic Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199600885.001.0001

    A systematic study of all development-oriented rules and procedures at the WTO. A central argument of the book is that the piecemeal approach to development in these rules has shown its limits. The author suggests two competing paradigms to improve the integration of development in the legal architecture of the WTO (i.e., development as a second-order normative consideration or development as a normative co-constituent of WTO law).

  • Sacerdoti, Giorgio. “New International Economic Order (NIEO).” In Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law. Edited by Rüdiger Wolfrum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    This online encyclopedia entry written by a former member of the Appellate Body of the WTO provides a comprehensive account of the rise, evolution, application, and demise of the NIEO, with a useful bibliography. The author concludes that one legacy of NIEO is the permanent embedment of the principles of trade preferences and nonreciprocity in international trade law. Available online by subscription.

  • Taxil, Bérangère. L’OMC et les pays en développement. Perspectives Internationales 13. Paris: Montchrestien, 1998.

    Translates as “WTO and Developing Countries.” This book is the first comprehensive study in French of the status of developing countries in WTO law. It traces the evolution of the law from the GATT to the WTO and provides a nuanced account of the substantive and institutional provisions of the WTO agreements relevant for the South.

  • Thomas, Chantal, and Joel P. Trachtman, eds. Developing Countries in the WTO Legal System. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A collective work revisiting Hudec 2010. The book critically addresses, with different views, most current themes in the discourse on the WTO and developing countries, including institutional capacity, dispute settlement, and substantive challenges.

  • Trade and Development. World Trade Organization.

    The online trade-and-development gateway of the WTO. This page is the best starting point for all research on the WTO website, providing useful links and up-to-date reference to all documents related to the topic, including the work of its Committee on Trade and Development.

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