While most attention on the WTO’s dispute settlement system has focused on the operation of the Appellate Body, the timeliness of disputes is often driven by the actions of the panel. Under Article 12 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU), panels are to render their reports within six months (3 months in urgent matters) and no longer than nine months after the panel is composed. Few if any panels in recent years have remotely come close to meeting a nine month report deadline.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting limitations on in person meetings at the WTO and travel restrictions, the panel process has been further complicated. At the recent Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) meeting of September 28, Australia had put on the agenda the issue of “COVID-19 and dispute settlement”. Agenda item 9 of Proposed Agenda for the 28 September 2020 Dispute Settlement Body meeting, WT/DSB/W/670.
The subsequent press release on the DSB meeting contained the following description of the discussion of Australia’s issue on COVID-19 and dispute settlement.
“Statement by Australia on COVID-19 and dispute settlement
“On behalf of 14 members (Australia; Brazil; Canada; Ecuador; Guatemala; Hong Kong, China; Mexico; New Zealand; Norway; Peru; Singapore; Switzerland; Ukraine; and the United Kingdom), Australia made a statement expressing concern about delays in dispute settlement proceedings resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While it is encouraging that DSB meetings have been able to resume at the WTO, ongoing restrictions affecting international travel and immigration place in question the feasibility of physical participation of panelists and capital-based delegates at meetings in Geneva into the future, Australia noted. During 2020, various governments, private sector organizations, and domestic and international adjudicative bodies worldwide have adapted their usual ways of working to continue operating in these difficult conditions; WTO members must ensure the dispute settlement system does the same.
“Australia urged panels to consider, in consultation with parties, flexible, alternative arrangements to ensure dispute proceedings can continue to progress in a timely manner despite the challenge of current restrictions. Australia recalled that Article 12.1 of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) affords panels discretion in the working procedures they adopt in individual disputes, and that panels, after consulting in parties, may determine alternative arrangements that would best serve the satisfactory settlement of the matters. Some panels have already adjusted their procedures to hold substantive meetings virtually through video conferencing technology; Australia welcomed these developments but, to ensure the equitable operation of the dispute settlement system, WTO members must find solutions to enable all current and future matters to move forward in one way or another.
“Several delegations took the floor to comment. Japan said that while virtual meetings are an option, face to face meetings were preferable, and that each panel should consult with parties on how to proceed in order to strike an appropriate balance between prompt settlement of disputes and protection of due process. India said oral hearings were an intrinsic aspect of due process rights guaranteed by the DSU and that panels cannot truncate these rights without the agreement of the parties in a dispute.
“The United States encouraged each panel to consult with the parties on how to proceed, bearing in mind the views of the parties and the relevant provisions of the DSU. China said it was fundamental to provide certainty in dispute settlement in order to avoid any undue delay; it noted some panels have adopted flexible procedures as a response. The EU said that the discretion of panels is not completely unfettered and that they must ensure the prompt settlement of disputes, a principle that was valid for all disputes. Both South Africa and Nigeria (for the African Group) noted the asymmetrical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developing country members.”
WTO Dispute Settlement, 28 September 2020, Panel established to review China’s compliance with farm subsidy ruling, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dsb_28sep20_e.htm.
The fact that Australia and others raised the issue at the DSB is certainly welcome, although the comments of Members at the DSB meeting indicates that there are both an array of problems facing different Members and arguably mixed motives for some in concerns about alternative approaches to in person meetings.
First, panels have regularly used the existence of the pandemic as a justification for a lengthy delay in the likely release of a panel report. See, e.g., India – Additional Duties on Certain Products from the United States, WT/DS585/4 (4 June 2020)(panel composed on 7 January 2020, because of pandemic, report to parties not before the second quarter of 2021); India – Measures Concerning Sugar and Sugarcane, WT/DS579/9; WT/DS580/9; WT/DS581/10 (29 April 2020)(complainants are Guatemala, Australia and Brazil)(panels composed on 28 October 2019, report to the parties not before the second quarter of 2021).
Thus, the issue of delay caused by the pandemic is an important one to address to maintain the timely operation of panels. While many developing countries may have greater challenges in terms of internal infrastructure for alternative means of handling disputes remotely, the claim of due process concerns at least for some Members is suspect particularly if the functioning of administrative and judicial activities in-country are being handled remotely/virtually as is true in many countries. For example, in the United States, arguments at federal courts are handled remotely, including at the highest court in the land. No Member should be allowed to delay panel proceedings on due process grounds where their own administrative and court proceedings are handled remotely during the pandemic. The Secretariat should seek transparency from Members on how their agencies and courts are handling matters during the pandemic.
Certainly, WTO Members should identify challenges they face to being able to engage in remote/virtual hearings if in person events are not possible. Where problems exist, the WTO Secretariat in conjunction with other organizations should look to see what technical assistance can be provided to permit active participation. Similarly, if issues affect the ability of panelists to handle matters remotely, there should be a review of options that may exist to facilitate panelists ability to participate. Again, the Secretariat should seek information from Members on challenges they face in participating in dispute proceedings and should have information on potential panelists on the same types of issues.
While the basic premises that panels should consult with parties is clearly the correct path to follow (contrary to the current practice of many panels and that reviewed in detail about the Appellate Body), there is the question of what happens when there is a difference among the parties as to how to proceed. The good offices of the Director-General can be used to possibly bridge the differences. Delay should only be permitted when the concerns of the party objecting to proceeding cannot be reasonably overcome.
It will be interesting to see if Members press for a prompt resolution to the concerns raised at the last DSB meeting, or if they simply let the problems continue to fester and delay the proper operation of panels.