The highest WTO authority is the Ministerial Conference which meets at least once every two years and is composed of representatives from all WTO signatories. The day-to-day work of the WTO, however, falls to a number of subsidiary bodies, principally the General Council, which is required to report to the Ministerial Conference. The General Council meets several times a year in the Geneva headquarters. Like the Ministerial Conference, the General Council is composed of representatives from all member nations. As well as conducting its regular work on behalf of the Ministerial Conference, the members of the General Council also convene as the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) and as the Trade Policy Review Body. At the next level are the Goods Council, Services Council and Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Council, which report to the General Council.
Five other bodies are established by the Ministerial Conference and report to the General Council: the Committee on Trade and Development, the Committee on Trade and Environment, the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements, the Committee on Balance of Payments, and the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration. A Trade Negotiations Committee was also established in November 2001 as a result of the Doha Declaration (see below). At the second Ministerial Conference in Geneva in 1998, ministers decided that the WTO would also study the area of electronic commerce, a task to be shared by existing councils and committees.
Each of the plurilateral agreements of the WTO—those on civil aircraft, government procurement, dairy products and bovine meat—have their own management bodies which report to the General Council.
The DSB itself also establishes subsidiary bodies for the resolution of trade disputes. One such set of bodies are called "panels." These panels are set up on an ad-hoc basis and last only long enough to hear the merits of a particular trade dispute between WTO members and reach a decision as to whether unfair trade practices are involved. After the DSB approves the formation of a panel, the WTO Secretariat will suggest the names of three potential panelists to the parties to the dispute, drawing as necessary on a list of qualified persons. If there is real difficulty in the choice, the Director-General can appoint the panelists. The panelists serve in their individual capacities and are not subject to government instructions.
The DSB also has the responsibility of establishing an Appellate Body to review decisions made by individual panels. The Appellate Body is modeled after the structure of the U.S. Federal Appeals Courts: the Appellate Body is composed of seven persons, three of which are assigned to each appeal from a panel's judgment. The members of the Appellate Body must be broadly representative of WTO membership, and are required to be persons of recognized standing in the field of law and international trade, and not affiliated with any government. Each member serves a four-year term.
The procedural operation of panels and the Appellate Body are described below under the heading of "Activities."