The Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, completed in 1994, has fundamentally transformed the legal landscape of the world trading system, making the WTO arguably the most powerful international economic institution in the world. Yet, the systemic problems that have dogged the WTO since its establishment in 1995 have their roots in the nature of this transformation and its implications for developing countries, especially African states. Developing countries, hitherto excluded from GATT rules, became subject to expanded WTO legal rules and disciplines on a range of new areas, including services, intellectual property rights and investment measures. The possibility of deepening and widening the rule-base of the trade regime is also likely with the Doha agenda, which includes possible negotiations on new rules dealing with investment, competition policy, trade facilitation, and transparency in government procurement.
Clearly, the increasing legalization and internationalization of trade rules have implications for weak states. International legalization involves sophisticated bargaining where power relations play a significant role. The purpose of this article is to explore, in the context of some of the theories of international law and political economy, how the preferences and interests of African countries are reflected in international rule making that involves both weak and powerful states. The article traces the institutional and legal evolution of the world trading system and how African countries have been affected by these developments. The new Doha agenda is examined with a view to establishing whether it holds out any real hope of redressing the imbalances in the system. Finally, suggestions are made as to how global trade rules can be fair, and therefore made to work for poor states.