Paralegal Guide: International Trade Law
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imported nearly $79 billion worth of food from other countries in 2010. The biggest contributors were Canada, the EU, Mexico, and China. Even in a country that produces much of its own products, imports from around the world are nearly inescapable for the average American consumer, and indicate just how closely the economies of nations are tied together. Global trade is a fact of life and therefore international laws and agreements about trade constitute some of the most powerful and far-reaching decisions made by nations and businesses.
Compiled here are websites and online documents about international trade laws that complement the larger legal resource of which this page is a part. Some basic information about how international trade is regulated can be found below, although law school students, legal experts, or businesspeople who plan to extend their trade across national borders can use this page as a starting point in gaining access to the organizations, agreements, and legal bodies responsible for regulating global business.
Although international trade laws have been around at least since the Middle Ages when a loose set of guidelines called the lex mercatoria were enforced on merchants in Europe, trade was not regulated on a global scale until the UN’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was implemented in 1948. Since then, the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, based in Geneva, Switzerland, has taken over the GATT’s role. The WTO counts the vast majority of the world’s countries as members and is responsible for settling trade disputes, enforcing regulations, and establishing a forum for countries to negotiate agreements.
The WTO is made up of three councils and numerous committees. The councils oversee the regulation goods, services, and intellectual property rights, with committees on agriculture, investment, and a host of other trade sectors. One step higher is the General Body that adjudicates disputes and assesses a country’s trade policies. Top decisions are made during the Ministerial Conference, which is held at least once every two years. The WTO’s policies are controversial as they are often accused of favoring the world’s wealthiest and exploiting the poor, which was one of the reasons for the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
Private parties who negotiate on a smaller scale than entire nations can reach agreements via other organizations, such as the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, which has separate jurisdiction from the WTO. Parties not tied to a particular government can establish contracts using the UNCITRAL as a negotiating forum, especially where the regulations that govern a party in one nation differ from the laws of another party’s host country. Finally, nation-specific institutions, like the U.S. International Trade Commission, serve a similar role. Most of these groups keep extensive legal records that can be reviewed by anyone with a stake in law.
Free Trade Agreements
When countries agree to establish a Free Trade Area (FTA), they eliminate trade barriers, such as quota shares and taxes on imports, so as to encourage the flow of goods and services across borders. This can result in the strengthening of all the economies involved (but not always). The free trade agreement is one of the early steps in economic integration, culminating in the formation of multi-national economic blocs, such as the European Union. One of the most well known free trade agreements in the United States is NAFTA although Europe has several FTAs between nations that have not yet joined the EU.
- The Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA-DR, was a 2004 agreement between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to lift trade barriers in a way similar to NAFTA. The full text of the agreement, in addition to multiple summaries and schedules, is available on the Office of the United States Trade Representative website.
- The European Union is much more than a trade agreement in that it allows its member nations to operate together as a single economic entity. Most European nations, if not members of the EU, enjoy unrestricted trade within the continent through a number of other trade agreements, including EFTA, the European Free Trade Agreement, and CEFTA, the Central European Free Trade Agreement.
- The North American Free Trade Agreement, an important milestone in the Clinton Administration in 1994, eliminated most of the tariffs and other trade barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The full text can be found on the secretariat’s website, although some supplements and guides are provided by the USDA.
History of International Trade Resources
For most of human civilization, trade between nations (or empires and kingdoms) was a completely unregulated practice except for treaties between two national economies. Tariffs on imported goods were the norm in international trade until the 19th century when free trade was shown to sometimes be mutually beneficial to two economies. During the 20th century the first multinational regulations anticipated the rise of globalism by establishing laws that were not specific to any two negotiating states; that is, they could be applied to multiple nations and set a world standard. Some examples are the League of Nations’ World Economic Conference of 1927 and the UN’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) twenty years later, which eventually became the WTO.
- The History of International Trade, a course packet from the Vertical Learning Curve, does not delve into any detailed explanations of history, but does offer a detailed bibliography of academic sources about the subject and links to libraries and other online references. The course textbook is Globalizing Customer Solutions by Edmund B. Fitzgerald.
- History of International Trade, from Maps of the World Finance, is a quick timeline that takes the reader from ancient times to the formation of the WTO in one page. Links to abstracts and short articles about associated topics, including “Benefits of International Trade” and “International Trade Statistics” are available at the bottom.
- Bernstein on the History of Trade is a 1 hour, 10-minute podcast by William Bernstein, a well-known financial theorist, covering the ways exchanges of goods and services between countries have influenced the world’s current economic status quo. The presentation is roughly chronological and ends with a look at differing economical perspectives on global trade in the 20th century.
Intellectual Property Resources
Intellectual property (IP) rights are an important topic in the discussion of international trade laws because the consumption of music, art, literature, inventions, and logos cannot be regulated in the same way that agricultural products and automobiles can be, especially given the rise of the Internet. A song that is posted online, for example, can be copied and reposted multiple times, crossing national borders with each proliferation. This is why IP, a topic that includes copyright, patents, and trademarks, is of paramount importance in global trade law. Two of the websites below represent groups associated with the UN.
- The International Intellectual Property Institute is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that seeks to establish the legal and judicial infrastructure of intellectual property rights in developing countries and elsewhere. The organization also serves as an educational resource, making the world more aware of the benefits of IP laws in helping economic growth.
- National Copyright Laws is a section of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s website providing full text of legal documents in PDF format. The documents can be browsed by continent, and then by country.
- Resource Guide for Researching Intellectual Property Law in an International Context, a detailed, topic-by-topic walkthrough about patents, the WTO, foreign laws, and other topics, is provided by Columbia University’s Arthur W. Diamond Law Library. Although much information is contained in the guide itself, links and citations of outside sources constitute much of the resource.
- The World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, is a United Nations agency emerged in 1974 to protect intellectual property on an international scale. WIPO provides a setting for nations to reconcile differing IP laws and to provide international trademarks.
Major International Treaties, Resolutions, and Documents
The UN and other international organizations must spend years establishing policy that is respected by dozens of nations, each with different laws of their own. Because of the sheer number of perspectives, a resolution or agreement that sees widespread adoption, like 1980’s Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods, is often seen as momentous. The following are some of the most important international trade agreements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Also included are some proposed regulations and other primary legal sources, all of which are available in full text.
- Foreign Trade Regulations, from the U.S. Census Bureau, are available in PDF or HTML format and outline U.S. policy on the exports of electronics, customs, products from Canada, and many other topics. The website comes with a FAQ and links to seminars about selected issues to help casual visitors to the site to better interpret the regulations.
- The Principles of European Contract Law’s three parts were published in 1995, 1999, and 2003 and articulate essential guidelines for the establishment of binding agreements between parties in the European Union. The full text is offered by the Copenhagen Business School.
- UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Commerce was a resolution adopted in by the UN in 1996 and amended in 1998 in lieu of emerging electronic communication media, including e-mail. The resolution attempts to establish legal definitions for electronic communication, such as signatures, that are taken for granted in print media.
- United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Carriage of Goods Wholly or Partly by Sea, also called the “Rotterdam Rules” after earlier maritime conventions (the “Hague Rules,” the “Hamburg Rules,” etc.), expands on earlier shipping regulations to take into account recent technological developments. Pertinent resources, such as news and statements by other organizes, accompany the full text of the resolution.
- The United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods was a 1980 treaty signed in Vienna that is considered one of most the far-reaching and widely adopted international treaties to exist, establishing uniform laws to regulate exports. The full text of the treaty can be found on Pace Law School’s International Institute of Commercial Law website along with numerous supplements, guides, and legal documents associated with the treaty.
- The Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations, provided in full by the Internet Archive, was a series of negotiations that marked the transition between the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, and the WTO. The round lasted between 1986 and 1994 and focused on international trade laws for agriculture, foreign investment, and loans.
Miscellaneous International Trade Resources
Visitors searching for an introduction to the concept of international trade law would do well to start with Reem Heakal’s article on the subject. For a more detailed, but equally accessible description, the appropriate sections from Management Study Guides also boil down international trade to its essentials. The resources gathered in this section serve as jumping off points for research on global trade and closely related topics like International Law.
- International Trade is a short article on the subject by Cornell University, but is full of links to additional articles and websites that help one understand the context of international trade law. These topics include the WTO, sections of the U.S. Constitution, and various historical trade acts.
- International Trade and Investment is a section of the legal website, FindLaw.com, that serves foremost as a link directory for organizations, databases, government agencies, and other sites associated with international trade.
- Perspective on International Trade is the first of several sections from Management Study Guides that is part of a larger “Import & Export Management” guide. The resource surveys the history, context, and globalizing aspects of international trade before moving on to practical articles on licensure and customs.
- What is International Trade? by Reem Heakal of Investopedia guides the reader through the basics of globalization, imports and exports, and other essential topics. The difference between free trade and protectionism is also expounded upon.
Official UN Sources
The United Nations was the progenitor of international trade law as it is enforced today. Established in 1945 as a peace organization replacing the less effective League of Nations (which failed to prevent World War II), the UN serves primarily as a meeting place for nations to hold fair negotiations before committing to military action. The aim of the United Nations is to increase the quality of life on as large a scale as possible through peacekeeping, human rights, social equality, and economic prosperity. The latter goal was one of the reasons the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed in the late 1940s and regulated international trade until the mid-1990s.
- The International Trade Centre was formed in the same year as the UNCTD (see below) and concentrates on giving small businesses in underrepresented countries an equitable chance in the global marketplace. The ITC reflects the policies of the UNCTD and negotiates business according to WTO rules.
- United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, described in the “Background” section above, provides a place for parties within nations to negotiate trade and settle disputes. UNCITRAL does not directly influence the trade laws of whole nations like the WTO does.
Official WTO Sources
Besides the sources listed here, the World Trade Organization’s website also maintains a section on official documents, community resources, and information about current issues and topics that fall under the WTO’s regulatory domain, including agriculture and tariffs. A brief overview of the WTO can be found at the top of this resource. Some outside perspectives on the WTO, including criticism, can be found in the BBC profile of the organization and the Guardian’s ongoing editorial section.
- The Doha Development Round, begun in 2001, is the official series of negotiations that occupy the WTO’s long-term agenda: to lower trade barriers, such as tariffs, around the world. Disputes between the EU and U.S., and between developing and developed nations, have contributed to the round’s continual postponement of any implemented policies.
- International Trade and Tariff Data is published by the WTO annually in both print and PDF format, including trade and tariff profiles of countries, global economic trends, and other statistics. Highlights and news are filtered from these official reports and put into separate documents.
- The World Trade Organization, as of 2011, includes 153 member nations and was born out of the Uruguay Round, a set of organizations that made sweeping changes to the UN General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The WTO’s goal is to liberalize, or reduce regulations imposed on, international trade.
American Trade Organizations
Compiled here are some U.S.-based institutions with a similar focus as the larger, multinational groups surveyed above. Law students and legal professionals in the U.S. will find official accounts of international trade cases and other legal documents from these sites. For example, the International Trade Commission keeps extensive records of hundreds of intellectual property disputes. These include everything from domestic legal battles over glassware to disagreements between foreign-based corporations, like Sony, about electronics distribution.
- The International Trade Administration is the U.S. government’s representative arm in the global market whose mission is to make the U.S. more competitive. Supporting U.S. exports, enforcing tariffs, and challenging foreign trade barriers are some of the ways that the ITA achieves this aim.
- The United States International Trade Commission investigates imports into the U.S. to ensure safety and adherence to certain trade laws, including those pertaining to intellectual property (IP) rights. The results of the ITC’s investigations into tariffs, the economy, trade policies, imports, and IP are then reported to the government and, for the most part, to the public.
- The World Trade Centers Association, an umbrella organization for several hundred world trade centers across the global, seeks to increase prosperity through trade. The organization is not tied to any specific company, product, or nation, but does host committees with specific functions, including “Tourism and Hospitality” and “Public Relations.”
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