26 August 2022

Improving WTO laws on illicit trade

As a diplomat, Mauricio Salcedo Maldonado experienced the fragmented and ineffective response of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to illegal trade and related organised crime economies. This prompted him to pursue a PhD thesis in International Law at the Geneva Graduate Institute, with the aim of shedding light on illicit trade and its regulatory management under international and WTO laws. His research led him to advance a proposal to improve the way the WTO deals with this issue by implementing international law criteria and analytical tools. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Few countries have been as affected by illicit trade as Colombia. I have been an officer and diplomat in Colombia’s international trade service for 15 years, and the problem of illegal trade has been a constant in my career as an international negotiator and my professional practice in international trade law. The half-hearted way the WTO deals with this issue was particularly frustrating. In short, when I applied for my PhD, I had a clear idea of the topic I wanted to write about.

Can you describe your thesis questions and your methodology?

This study sets out to effectively understand the growing problem that illicit trade represents, examining the problem at its roots to contribute to a solution that would allow for illicit trade to be approached comprehensively by international trade law, bearing in mind the underlying historical, economic, and legal factors. In conducting this process, this dissertation analyses the problems caused by the current stance of the WTO on illicit trade and proposes a set of alternatives for addressing the policy concerns raised in this respect. Throughout the investigation, historical and technical sources on the matter, economic tools, and a wide range of trade policy instruments were also consulted. Concretely, this study proposes specific guidelines for effective responses to the current problem of illicit trade. 

The methodology pursued primarily reviews the understanding of illicit trade in international law and then advances a set of three typologies appropriate to understand the illegal trade issue. Then it revisits comparative case studies and domestic responses to illicit trade before focusing on international law and WTO law, finally applying legal reasoning to the main issue at stake, relying on a pragmatic approach to propose a new trade policy approach. This approach aims to offer effective analytical and regulatory responses to the problem.

What are these responses?

Ultimately, this work provides a conceptual framework to understand the fundamental problem of illicit trade and demonstrates why the WTO must address this problem through the analytical tools offered by international law and not only by the multilateral trading system, and suggests how, with the cooperation of international and WTO factfinders, it would be able to do so. The dissertation proposes that WTO law must overcome the fragmented approach to international law and accept its condition as a discipline of international law, not an isolated body.

What could be the social and political implications of your thesis?

Improving the international regulatory approach to illicit trade could imply a reduced impact of organised crime and illegal trade on the international community and international communities worldwide. By prioritising unlawful trade activities to be mitigated and applying proper law enforcement to them, as well as international cooperation, risk management, and mitigation tools, the international community can make substantive progress in the fight against illicit trade.  

What are you doing now?

I am the head of International Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Tourism of Colombia. After graduation, I plan to continue practicing, researching and lecturing in international trade law.

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Mauricio Salcedo Maldonado defended his PhD thesis, “Illicit Trade in the Context of International and WTO Law: Developing an Integrated Perspective”, in June 2022. The jury members were Associate Professor Fuad Zarbiyev (chair and internal examinator), Professor Joost Pauwelyn (supervisor) and Professor Petros C. Mavroidis (external examinator), Columbia Law School, New York, USA. Both thesis and defence were awarded summa cum laude.

Access to the PhD thesis:
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others may contact Dr Salcedo Maldonado at

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Salcedo Maldonado, Mauricio Andrés. “Illicit Trade in the Context of International and WTO Law: Developing an Integrated Perspective.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by AlexLMX/