Dispute Settlement Understanding

WTO Appellate Body Issues Reports on Australia’s Plain Packaging Requirements on Tobacco Products — Last Reports Until WTO Appellate Body Reform Occurs

On June 9th, the long awaited WTO Appellate Body (“AB”) reports on the two challenges to Australia’s plain packaging requirements on tobacco products were released. AUSTRALIA – CERTAIN MEASURES CONCERNING TRADEMARKS, GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATIONS AND OTHER PLAIN PACKAGING REQUIREMENTS APPLICABLE TO TOBACCO PRODUCTS AND PACKAGING, WT/DS435/AB/R and WT/DS441/AB/R (9 June 2020). The appellants were Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The Appellate Body essentially upheld the panel reports not finding violations of WTO Agreements by Australia’s actions. The decisions are important for governments and citizens concerned with the need to limit the reach of health harmful products like cigarettes. With plain packaging laws now prevalent in a number of countries, one can expect today’s AB decision to encourage more countries to emulate the approach taken by Australia (in part or in whole).

The WTO Secretariat prepares summaries of findings on cases. Below is the link to the summary followed by the summary of findings from the AB decisions provided on the WTO webpage, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds435_e.htm#bkmk435abr:

“Honduras (DS435) and the Dominican Republic (DS441) (together referred to as the appellants) requested the Appellate Body to reverse the Panel’s conclusions under Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement, and Articles 16.1 and 20 of the TRIPS Agreement.

  • “1. With respect to Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement:
    • With respect to the contribution of the TPP measures to Australia’s objective, the Appellate Body found that Honduras had not substantiated its claim that the Panel erred in its application of Article 2.2 to the facts of the case. Ultimately, the Appellate Body found that the appellants had not demonstrated that the Panel failed to make an objective assessment of the facts under Article 11 of the DSU. In particular, the Appellate Body found that, although the Panel erred by disregarding certain evidence adduced by the Dominican Republic, and acted inconsistently with Article 11 of the DSU by compromising the complainants’ due process rights with respect to the Panel’s reliance on multicollinearity and non‑stationarity when reviewing the parties’ econometric evidence, such errors were not sufficiently material to vitiate the Panel’s findings regarding the contribution of the TPP measures to Australia’s objective, namely improving public health by reducing the use of, and exposure to, tobacco products.
    • The Appellate Body found that the appellants had not demonstrated that the Panel erred in its intermediate conclusions pertaining to the trade restrictiveness of the TPP measures. In particular, the Appellate Body upheld the Panel’s finding that the impact of the TPP measures on reducing the opportunity for producers to differentiate between different products on the basis of brands did not in itself necessarily amount to a limiting effect on international trade. The Appellate Body also upheld the Panel’s finding that the complainants failed to demonstrate that the TPP measures would necessarily lead to a decline in the value of imported tobacco products as a consequence of consumers shifting from premium to non-premium products in response to the TPP measures (downtrading).
    • With respect to the alternative measures, the Appellate Body found that the Panel erred in finding that the complainants had failed to demonstrate that each of the two alternative measures (the increase in the MLPA and an increase in taxation) would be apt to make a contribution equivalent to that of the TPP measures. However, the Appellate Body found that the Panel did not err in finding that the complainants had failed to demonstrate that these two alternative measures are less trade restrictive than the TPP measures. Consequently, the Panel’s finding that the complainants had not demonstrated that the increase in the MLPA and the increase in taxation would each “be a less trade restrictive alternative to the TPP measures that would make an equivalent contribution to Australia’s objective”, stands.
    • Consequently, the Appellate Body upheld the Panel’s conclusion that the complainants had not demonstrated that the TPP measures are more trade restrictive than necessary to fulfil a legitimate objective, within the meaning of Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement.
  • “2. With respect to Article 16.1 of the TRIPS Agreement:
    • The Appellate Body found that the Panel did not err in its interpretation of Article 16.1. The Appellate Body agreed with the Panel that Article 16.1 of the TRIPS Agreement grants a trademark owner the exclusive right to preclude unauthorized use of the trademark by third parties. However, Article 16.1 does not confer upon a trademark owner a positive right to use its trademark or a right to protect the distinctiveness of that trademark through use.
    • Having found no error in the Panel’s interpretation, the Appellate Body agreed with the Panel that there was no need to examine further the complainants’ factual allegation that the TPP measures’ prohibition on the use of certain tobacco related trademarks would in fact reduce the distinctiveness of such trademarks, and lead to a situation where a “likelihood of confusion” with respect to these trademarks is less likely to arise in the market.
    • Consequently, the Appellate Body upheld the Panel’s conclusion that the complainants have not demonstrated that the TPP measures are inconsistent with Article 16.1 of the TRIPS Agreement.
  • “3. With respect to Article 20 of the TRIPS Agreement
    • The Appellate Body found that the Panel did not err in its interpretation and application of Article 20 of the TRIPS Agreement. In particular, the Appellate Body considered that the Panel did not err in its interpretation of the term ‘unjustifiably’ in Article 20 and in its application of this interpretation to the facts of the case. The Appellate Body thus agreed with the Panel that the complainants had not demonstrated that trademark-related requirements of the TPP measures unjustifiably encumbered the use of trademarks in the course of trade within the meaning of Article 20.
    • Consequently, the Appellate Body upheld the Panel’s conclusion that the complainants had not demonstrated that the TPP measures are inconsistent with Article 20 of the TRIPS Agreement.

“The Appellate Body recalled that, having rejected all of the complainants’ claims, the Panel had declined Honduras’ and the Dominican Republic’s requests that the Panel recommend, in accordance with Article 19.1 of the DSU, that the DSB request Australia to bring the measures at issue into conformity with the TRIPS Agreement and the TBT Agreement.

“Having upheld the Panel’s findings under Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement and Articles 16.1 and 20 of the TRIPS Agreement, it followed that the Appellate Body also agreed with the Panel that Honduras and the Dominican Republic had not succeeded in establishing that Australia’s TPP measures are inconsistent with the provisions of the covered agreements at issue. Accordingly, the Appellate Body made no recommendation to the DSB, pursuant to Article 19.1 of the DSU.”

While the Reports are Not Surprising in Outcome, They Show Many of the Concerns that U.S. has Raised about the AB Over Time

These are the last reports of the Appellate Body until the impasse on the appointment of new Appellate Body members is solved, which will require the United States achieving reforms in the operation of the Appellate Body and the AB’s actual adherence to the Dispute Settlement Understanding as negotiated.

Many of the concerns that the U.S. has long raised are present in the current decisions. For example, the reports were not prepared in 90 days from the date of appeal, nor were the delays in completion of the appeals specifically authorized by the parties. The decisions were prepared by non-current members of the Appellate Body (although Members had agreed to permit conclusion of appeals where hearings had already occurred). The vast majority of the issues in the appeals were challenges to findings of fact by the panels under the guise of DSU Article 11 challenges that the panels failed to make an objective assessment of the facts. While the Appellate Body decisions attempt to limit what the AB should be reviewing where DSU Art. 11 is the basis for the claim, the bulk of the decisions still involve discussions of at least some of the DSU Art. 11 claims made by the appellants. See WT/DS435/AB/R at 38-135 and WT/DS441/AB/R at 38-135.

The United States was a third party to the cases but limited its written comments to a few issues, the most important of which was the need for the Appellate Body not to permit Art. 11 to be used for a review of factual findings, which by DSU are issues for the panel. See WT/DS435/AB/R/Add.1, Annex C-16 at 92-93; WT/DS441/AB/R/Add.1, Annex C-16 at 92-93:

“III. COMPLAINANTS’ CLAIMS OF ERROR UNDER THE DSU

“7. Honduras and the Dominican Republic both appeal dozens of factual findings under DSU Article 11. Both appeals by Honduras and the Dominican Republic to the Appellate Body make numerous claims under Article 11 of the DSU of what clearly are alleged factual errors by the Panel. By agreement of all WTO Members, the DSU expressly limits the scope of an appeal to alleged legal errors by a panel, not factual errors.6 The United States disagrees with these attempts to re-litigate dozens of unfavorable factual determinations by the Panel through claims of breach of Article 11 of the DSU.

“8. The Appellate Body has an opportunity in this appeal to reconsider how its originally limited approach to review the “objective assessment” of a panel has been seized by appellants to cover practically all factual determinations by a panel. Given the lack of textual basis in the DSU for
appellate review of panel fact-finding, the Appellate Body could instead reassert that the proper issues for appeal are issues of law and legal interpretations covered by a panel report.7

“6 See DSU Article 17.6.

“7 Id. (“An appeal shall be limited to issues of law covered in the panel report and legal interpretations developed by the panel.”).”

Conclusion

The plain packaging decisions by the Appellate Body are the last AB decisions until the impasse over AB member selection is resolved which means that the U.S. concerns of the operation of the AB must be resolved.

While the decisions are important in themselves, they also demonstrate the types of problems which have made Appellate Body decisions untimely and problematic to the United States and other Members.

While some Members are now proceeding with arbitration type actions to maintain a second-level review of disputes, the need for collective action to return the Appellate Body to its proper and limited role continues. With the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Director-General selection process taking up much of the trade oxygen for many WTO Members, the need for Appellate Body reform is likely to slip to 2021 or later before being focused on again.