Gabrielle Marceau

Thoughts on the Geneva Trade Week session entitled “WTO Dispute Settlement – Where Do We Stand?”

The Graduate Institute of Geneva and other groups have organized an ambitious week of programs that started on September 28 and carries on through October 2 with both various plenary sessions and with breakout sessions where multiple events are happening during the same time period.

On Monday, September 28, after an opening plenary on rethinking trade at 1 p.m., there were three ninety minute breakout sessions at 3:00 p.m., including a session on WTO Dispute Settlement – Where Do We Stand? The dispute settlement session was organized by Gabrielle Marceau of the WTO Secretariat and the University of Geneva. The current Chair of the Dispute Settlement Body, H.E. Dacio Castillo of Honduras served as moderator of a panel that included five other Ambassadors/Permanent Representatives to the WTO and two highly respected international trade professionals. Specifically, the panel consisted of EU Ambassador Joao Aguiar Machado, Canadian Ambassador Stephen de Boer, U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea, Mexican Ambassador Angel Villalobos Rodriguez and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xiangchen. Ms. Claudia Orozco who had been part of the Colombia Mission, the most frequently selected panelists in WTO disputes and now an arbitrator in the MPIA (Multi-Party Interim Arbitration Arrangement to which 24 WTO Members have signed up pending the resolution of the WTO impasse) was a sixth panelist. Mr. Jorge Miranda, a Senior International Trade Adviser for Cassidy Levy Kent LLP in Washington, D.C., a past Rules Division official and a frequent writer and speaker on WTO dispute settlement was the seventh panelist.

It was an impressive panel with certain understandable limitations. WTO Members at a public event like this will provide a good overview of their existing positions on the topic but are not going to provide clarity of where solutions may be if different from what has been presented previously by their government. Not surprisingly, none of the Ambassadors deviated from that expected framework of comments. Similarly, the observations of panelists who are not speaking for WTO Members can be helpful in identifying possible paths forward but obviously only if Members opt to proceed in one or more of the suggested routes.

I start this post by looking at the positions stated by each panelist in their opening statement, their comments about other statements and their answers to questions. I then present some observations about the positions taken and whether Members are merely talking past each other or testing their priorities against the practical realities that surround the WTO dispute settlement system.

Opening Statements

H.E. Stephen de Boer, Canada

The first panelist to speak was Ambassador de Boer of Canada. He identified three themes to his comments: (1) the key role played by the dispute settlement system in the WTO; (2) the importance of the Appellate Body (AB) in that system; and (3) the role of the Multi Party Interim Arbitration Arrangement (MPIA) at the current time.

Amb. de Boer reviewed the elements of the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) adopted as part of the Uruguay Round package that came into force in 1995 when the WTO commenced. The DSU provided for binding dispute settlement absent a negative consensus. This was a major improvement over the GATT dispute settlement approach where the losing party could block adoption of a panel decision. Canada is a very strong supporter of the rule of law. Amb. de Boer commented that it is not surprising that panels may err. The two-tier dispute settlement process is designed to address possible erroneous panel interpretations by appeal to the Appellate Body.

At the present time, the lack of a functioning Appellate Body makes the WTO system more uncertain. First, a party or parties unhappy with a panel decision can file an appeal which, with the AB not having three members, means the appeal is into a void where no outcome is possible until the restoration of the AB. If one is left with just panel decisions, there is a higher risk of erroneous decisions which in turn makes the system more uncertain for business. In Canada’s view, the fact that a Member may disagree with specific decisions is not a reason to undermine the dispute settlement system. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. Hence timeliness of the dispute settlement system is important.

On timeliness, Canada would note that much more of the delay in disputes is at the panel stage. Delays flow from increased complexity of case. Canada believes that dispute settlement reform needs to include a review of timeliness of both panels and the AB.

Canada’s priority is to find multilateral solutions to the dispute settlement system which would of course include the United States.

Canada was pleased to participate in the creation of the MPIA, which now has 24 Member participants.

H.E. Joao Aguiar Machado, European Union

Amb. Machado started by noting that the WTO’s dispute settlement system is not in a good place and is essentially paralyzed. While all Members do not agree on how we got here, we need to agree on where we go from here.

The top priority for the EU is to find a solution to the impasse. The EU supported the Walker proposal (Amb. David Walker, NZ, serving as a facilitator to the General Council in 2019). It proved not to be sufficient. The EU is open to meaningful reform. However, Members need to move forward not backwards in terms of the type of reform considered.

It is important that agreed rules of the WTO are enforceable. This is critical for predictability and certainty in the system.

For the EU, any reformed dispute settlement system must be binding, two-tiered, and guarantee impartiality of adjudicators.

The EU agrees that panels and the Appellate Body are not courts and that panelists and AB members are not judges. It is the role of WTO Members, not adjudicators, to establish new rules.

On the MPIA, it is the intent of the 24 Members participating to establish an interim mechanism to preserve a second-tier dispute settlement step while the AB is inoperable. The MPIA is open to the participation of all Members, is temporary in nature and is not an attempt at reform of the WTO AB which would require involvement of all Members. However, there are enhancements including the use of a pool of arbitrators.

H.E. Dennis Shea, United States

Amb. Shea reviewed that there is little doubt where the United States stands on the dispute settlement system. Over three years in Dispute Settlement Body meetings, the U.S. has reviewed how the Appellate Body has violated the DSU both procedurally and substantively. Then USTR in February of this year put out a 174 page report on the Appellate Body of the WTO [https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Report_on_the_Appellate_Body_of_the_World_Trade_Organization.pdf] which pulled the U.S. concerns together in a single document.

The U.S. was very active in the Walker process in 2019. Unfortunately, very little of what the U.S. offered in comments on the draft proposal was taken on board in what was presented to the General Council. The U.S. has raised questions about the utility of the proposals since much of the language put forward was simply a repetition of what is already in the DSU which has been disregarded by the AB. We don’t have answers to why the AB disregarded the specific DSU language limiting the role of the AB or why it felt free to disregard the limits on its authority.

The AB is not an international court, and AB members are not judges. Role of the AB is not to create a body of jurisprudence but rather simply to make recommendations to help the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) resolve a given dispute. The AB’s role is limited.

Unfortunately, some Members see the AB as an independent international court and the AB members as judges who have the ability to create jurisprudence.

On the MPIA entered into by Canada, the EU, China and others, they have incorporated into an arbitration process some of the worst aspects of the AB practices including awards that are precedential, arbitrators engaging in fact finding and more.

The U.S. fundamentally differs on the role of the Appellate Body from that approach and from the approach of those viewing the AB as a type of court.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece by USTR Robert Lighthizer, he proposed a single-stage dispute process similar to commercial arbitration with a process to put aside erroneous decisions. What do other panelists think of that approach?

In the meantime, the WTO dispute settlement system continues to function. There have been eight panel requests made in the last five DSB meetings. Parties are considering how to handle panel reports, such as by agreeing not to appeal panel reports. The central objective of the dispute settlement system remains the same — to resolve a dispute between Members.

H.E. Angel Villalobos Rodriguez, Mexico

Amb. Villalobos’s comments were short and quite dispirited. He indicated that he was not optimistic for the future of the WTO dispute settlement system based on Amb. Shea’s comments. Amb. Villalobos feels that the dispute settlement system has become a “zombie”.

In talking about efforts in 2019 to address U.S. concerns with the Appellate Body, Amb. Villalobos noted that a large number of Members had come forward with proposals to deal with various aspects of U.S. concerns and that had resulted in the Walker proposal in late 2019 to the General Council which the U.S. had prevented from being adopted to address a range of U.S. concerns.

The impasse on the Appellate Body has led many countries including Mexico to come together in the MPIA. But the MPIA is intended to be temporary only.

Amb. Villalobos believes the WTO will have a more difficult road in the future to restore the two-tiered dispute settlement system.

While the dispute settlement system has been viewed by many as the crown jewel of the WTO, the present situation may be the beginning of the end for the crown jewel.

H.E. Zhang Xiangchen, China

Amb. Zhang views the Appellate Body and the WTO’s dispute settlement system as being on shaky ground. He is not optimistic that Members can reach agreement on substantive issues. However, that doesn’t mean that Members can’t work at improving the system.

When he looks at some of the concerns raised, such as issuing reports/decisions in 90 days, the problem is not entirely the fault of the Appellate Body. There have been a large number of appeals, many more than was envisioned when the WTO was created. Appeals are much more complicated. Thus, Members share some of the “blame”.

Is overreach a problem? Yes for many countries including China. Amb. Zhang cited the cases involving export duties where the Appellate Body viewed China did not have the right to put forward Art. XX defenses. In his view, Amb. Zhang believes that all negotiators know that there are ambiguous provisions in many agreements. These ambiguities have to be addressed in appeals and obviously are problems for the AB.

No matter how serious problems may be with the Appellate Body, the AB has solved many problems for parties which have improved certainty and predictability.

Going back to the system as it was in the 1990s would be problematic as rules will have no enforcement teeth. This lack of enforceability will hurt negotiations going forward.

Ms. Claudia Orozco, International Trade Law Advisor and Arbitrator for MPIA

Ms. Orozco believes that there is a serious crisis, not of the Appellate Body only, but of the dispute settlement system at the WTO and therefore of the rule of law.

The WTO dispute settlement system is intended to ensure that commitments under WTO Agreements are binding on all parties and that disputes are resolved by third party adjudicators.

The current challenges around the Appellate Body are a serious risk to the dispute settlement system and is leading to reduced use of the dispute settlment system.

A second consequence is likely to be erosion of the monitoring function within the WTO if Members can’t resolve the Appellate Body issues. The purpose of monitoring is to understand actions of trading partners. Greater information on actions can result in disputes if problems can’t otherwise be resolved. Where there is no binding dispute settlement system, Members will likely be less focused on notifications.

The third consequence of the AB impasse will be the erosion of the negotiating function, as there will less interest in new rules if they cannot be enforced.

In short, the impasse if not resolved, will affect the credibility and relevance of the WTO.

Are there solutions? Ms. Orozco believes Members need to look at the history of the WTO over the last twenty-five years. In her view, the AB’s role needs to be narrowed down as 25 years of history show that panels typically don’t make major errors of interpretation which was the intended function of the AB. Thus, questions for Members should include:

— how to narrow the focus of the AB;

— what changes are needed to permit the AB to meet the 90 day deadline;

— based on problems in the first 25 years, what type of experience should AB members have (e.g., experience with disputes in the WTO; experience in implementation of agreements);

–should more than three members of the AB participate in appeals where issues are of first impression;

–what is the role of the AB Secretariat vs. the role of AB members (e.g., should there be rotation of AB Secretariat staff).

The WTO dispute settlement system is critical to commercial players where predictability and certainty are key. Lack of predictability and certainty harm willingness to invest and to trade.

Mr. Jorge Miranda, Senior International Trade Adviser, Cassidy Levy Kent LLP

Mr. Miranda stated that the Appellate Body has made some outstanding achievements but has made major errors in the trade remedy area. The errors coupled with the AB refusal to reconsider legal issues. Without a change in approach, it is hard to see progress.

Mr. Miranda’s comments reflect his views as a co-author in a paper [Jorge Mirand and Manuel Sanchez-Miranda, “How the WTO Appellate Body Drove Itself Into a Corner,” https:ssrn.com/abstract=3596217].

Mr. Miranda reviewed two of the five cases reviewed in the paper showing the serious errors by the Appellate. The first was the fasteners case [European Communities – Definitive Anti-Dumping Measures on Certain Iron or Steel Fasteners from China, WT/DS397/AB/R, adopted 28 July 2011] where the AB addressed an issue that was not part of the terms of reference and had not been briefed by the parties. This was a major problem as the issue addressed would potentially be subject to a dispute at the WTO.

A second case was a subsidy case and involved the interpretation of the term “public body” [United States – Definitive Anti-Dumping and Countervailing Duties on Certain Products from China, WT/DS379/AB/R, adopted 25 March 2011]. Mr. Miranda’s comments focused on the fact that most public bodies in the context of countervailing duty investigations are commercial enterprises. The AB’s decision requires the existence of governmental powers to regulate, control or supervise, but ignored the entrepreneurial functions mentioned in the Subsidies and Countervailing Measure Agreement (Art. 1.1(a)(1)) where no other authority is required.

While Mr. Miranda recognizes the fact that all adjudicators can err, the problem with the WTO AB is its inflexibility and refusal to reconsider interpretations in later cases regardless of arguments put forward.

Mr. Miranda reviews the U.S. system of stare decisis and ability of court’s to reconsider prior decisions in certain circumstances. He also reviews the Mexican system where there need to be multiple decisions on the same issue before there is precedent.

By contrast, the Appellate Body views its interpretation as cast in stone at the first decision. He believes the AB needs to be more flexible in how it views prior decisions/interpretations.

Reactions to Opening Statements of Other Panelists

H.E. Joao Aguiar Machado, European Union

Amb. Machado reiterated the EU view that the AB is not a court. The EU view is that it is in the interest of the WTO membership that rulings are of high quality and that the rulings have consequences. Thus, to the EU, it is important to have a two-tier dispute settlement system so parties can address legal errors in any panel report. The EU is open to discuss how best to get a two-tier system back.

Amb. Machado believes that it is unfair to claim that the MPIA incorporates the worst elements of the AB. The MPIA results in arbitration decisions. The MPIA is not an attempt to create AB reform. Since the MPIA is an interim arbitration process while awaiting the return of the AB, it is understandable that the parties to the MPIA drew on the AB, which is the only second-tier system that has existed over the last 25 years. While the MPIA parties have introduced efficiencies in how MPIA operates, this is not an attempt to reform the AB as any reform would need all Members.

At end of the day, the EU needs a system that is efficient, binding, independent and of the highest quality.

H.E. Angel Villalobos Rodriguez, Mexico

Amb. Villalobos sees fragmentation of approach facing the WTO dispute settlement system — the MPIA for some; other approaches for others. The fragmentation may last a long time. If so, such fragmentation will weaken the appetite to negotiate, and the increased uncertainty and unpredictability will weaken investment and trade.

Amb. Villalobos noted that a large percentage of disputes are resolved at the consultation stage and that a sizeable portion of cases that do go forward to the panel stage are resolved without appeal.

There are typically not good alternatives for Members to WTO dispute settlement. Regional trade agreements often don’t have dispute settlement on trade remedies (though USMCA between the U.S., Mexico and Canada does) and typically don’t have strong Secretariats.

H.E. Zhang Xiangchen, China

Amb. Zhang noted that the paralysis of the AB is a major challenge to the trading system. Binding rulings from impartial adjudicators are important for predictability and certainty. Regional free trade agreements and any dispute settlement contained therein cannot replace the WTO.

In looking at the path forward, the accountability of the AB can be addressed through peer review and oversight by the WTO Members.

Mr. Jorge Miranda, Senior International Trade Adviser, Cassidy Levy Kent LLP

Regional agreements can’t compete with the WTO dispute settlement system. None have an Appellate Body.

The fact that there are problems with the WTO dispute settlement system, in Mr. Miranda’s opinion, is not a major issue.

On the issue of oversight, there should be a way to address without affecting the independence and impartiality of the AB.

H.E. Stephen de Boer, Canada

It is important to go back to first principles. Members placed great importance on certainty. Fact that any Member believes it didn’t get the right result in a given dispute is not a basis to abandon the system. In a November 2016 statement by then Chairman of the Appellate Body, Thomas Graham, he noted that overreach is in the eye of the beholder. [Thomas Graham, 22 November 2016, Speaking Up: The State of the Appellate Body, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news16_e/ab_22nov16_e.pdf%5D. The dispute settlement system is different than individual disputes or cases.

The fact that there continue to be some disputes filed is not a sign that the system is well. The impasse will have an effect on negotiations.

Canada is willing to talk about change but needs an effective and enforceable system.

Ms. Claida Orzco, International Trade Law Advisor and MPIA Arbitrator

There is agreement that the crisis is very problematic. We must remember that everything the WTO does is for the private sector which needs certainty and predictability.

It is important to solve the problem. That includes looking at how to achieve decisions within 90 days, limiting the role of the AB to focus on issues relevant to a dispute’s resolution, identifying the relevant the credentials for AB Members.

As the AB was created to correct manifest errors in legal interpretations, history over the last 25 years shows that is not a significant problem. This implies, Members can reduce the role of the AB.

H.E. Dennis Shea, United States

The WTO membership needs to understand that there is a problem with the operation of the dispute settlement system. Efforts of the U.S. over the last three years has finally gotten a recognition by many that there are problems. So that is some progress.

Some Members view the role of the AB as that of a court with the ability to establish rules. The U.S. does not view the AB as a court and views rule making as the sole responsibility of the WTO Members.

While Canada has talked about the need for certainty, the U.S. views certainty as the AB completing its work in 90 days, not investigating facts, and not creating obligations.

While some view the current situation as undermining the ability to negotiate, the United States has viewed the operation of the Appellate Body as leading Members to litigate rather than negotiate.

On the issue of precedent, in 1996, the AB indicated its decisions were not precedential. Twelve years later in 2008, it viewed its decisions as precedential absent cogent reasons.

The U.S. disagrees that the AB is a higher source in dispute settlement. The AB has a limited role only.

In 2020, Thomas Graham gave his farewell speech as an Appellate Body member at Georgetown and listed areas where in his experience the Appellate Body was acting like a court. [see https://nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.wto.org%2Fenglish%2Ftratop_e%2Fdispu_e%2Ffarwellspeechtgaham_e.htm&data=02%7C01%7C%7C892aebd466894f3d774908d86571205c%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637370883824924668&sdata=QPkC0ep1OHLIwTtUPpDgTAWV9cfx%2FoDB812iMg%2FrTKk%3D&reserved=0]

Answers to Questions

H.E. Joao Aguiar Machado, European Union

In responding to a question about why a two-tier system of dispute settlement is necessary since other organizations make due with a single tier, Amb. Machado stated that a two-tier system of dispute settlement is important in the WTO since disputes are often dealing with national legislation. The second level of review is needed to review potential errors of law, so Members can go back to their legislatures for domestic changes to bring themselves into compliance with WTO obligations.

In looking at the length of time to resolve disputes, Amb. Machado noted that disputes have become very complex which has contributed to the delays. Members need to take some responsibility to reduce the number of issues in appeals versus the historic approach.

While the EU will discuss reforms, the EU will not agree to have the dispute settlement go back to the GATT system.

H.E. Angel Villalobos Rodriguez, Mexico

Amb. Villalobos responded to a question on likely effect of the current impasse by stating that with no Appellate Body, the appetite of Members for new rules will be reduced.

H.E. Stephen de Boer, Canada

Amb. de Boer indicated that Canada doesn’t view the AB as a court or members as judges.

Canada believes any reforms to the dispute settlement system can only look forward; specifically, reforms of the dispute settlement system can’t look at past decisions.

Amb. de Boer reiterated his opening statement point that delay in the dispute settlement system is not limited to the AB process and so reform should look at the entire dispute settlement system to ensure timely reports and decisions.

Looking at USTR Liighthizer’s Wall Street Journal article, Amb. de Boer stated that it appears to be the first expression of what U.S. wants. Going back to the GATT system seems to be Amb. Lighthizer’s objective.

H.E. Zhang Xiangchen, China

Amb. Zhang stated that a two-tiered system of dispute settlement was adopted in the Uruguay Round as a response to problems with the GATT system of resolving disputes. Amb. Zhang indicated that 90% of Members believe the WTO needs a two-tier system for disputes.

On the question of the recent panel decision on U.S. tariffs imposed on China pursuant to a section 301 investigation, China agrees with the panel report that the U.S. actions violated MFN obligations. China urges the U.S. to bring its actions into conformance with its obligations.

H.E. Dennis Shea, United States

In response to an inquiry about why Members would negotiate new rules where enforcement is not guaranteed, Amb. Shea noted that the U.S. (and many other Members) are actively engaged in negotiations, whether multilateral (fisheries subsidies) or plurilateral (e-commerce). Thus, it is possible for negotiations for new rules to proceed in the current circumstances.

Ms. Claudia Orozco, International Trade Law Advisor and MPIA Arbitrator

Ms. Orozco noted that the concern if rules are not enforceable is that there would be less interest in negotiating new rules. Her hope was that that concern would not materialize.

On a question about the Secretariat, Ms. Orozco noted that some reforms, like rotation of personnel at senior position, time limits for Secretariat personnel might be useful as in the past the head of the AB Secretariat had served longer than any AB member. The WTO also needs oversight of the AB by Members and some form of response where a problem arises and repeats itself (e.g. repeated failure to complete reports in 90 days).

Mr. Jorge Miranda, Senior International Trade Adviser, Cassidy Levy Kent LLP

Mr. Miranda took the view that any type of adjudicatory system would have the adjudicators looking back at what they had done previously. Key, in his view, is to have more flexibility than the AB has shown as to relevance of prior decisions.

Observations

As an outside observer, I provide some comments for what they are worth.

  1. While stating that they don’t view the AB as a court or AB members as judges, the EU and Canada do not identify how that point of agreement with the United States translates into a view of AB reports. If not a court, presumably the AB is not to create law or rules. Yet that is what the AB has repeatedly done. Should the prior reports of the AB have any value? Any value other than their pursuasiveness would seem inappropriate.

2. Wouldn’t the issue of overreach be addressed in part by clarifying what is meant by creating rights or obligations? For example, many of the overreach issues of concern to the U.S. (and possibly others) flow from gap filling, construing silence or adopting a single interpretation on ambiguous language. Clarifying the language in DSU 3.2 and 19.2 to indicate that examples of creating rights or obligations would include gap filling, construing silence or providing a single interpretation of ambiguous language would thus increase certainty and predictability and leave rulemaking to the WTO Members as intended.

3. Ms. Orozco stated that the AB role should be reduced as typically panels have not made manifest errors in legal interpretation based on a review of the first twenty-five years of decision. The AB was done at the end of the Uruguay Round negotiations and was largely a safeguard against wildly erroneous decisions by a panel if adoption of reports was to be automatic. Does the experience of the first 25 years reduce the need for a two-tier system? Reasons for wanting a two-tier system going forward include automaticity of adoption, independence of adjudicator, opportunity to correct errors from a panel report. But automaticity need not be tied to having a two-tier system. Particularly where purpose of dispute settlement is to help find a resolution to the dispute between parties versus an effort to create law through “clarifying” agreements, a single level could be made automatic. There is nothing about a single level of dispute settlement that doesn’t permit independence (whether panels are staffed as they are now or through a different approach as has been suggested by some). Even the opportunities to correct errors could be addressable in a single-tier if there were a process (such as suggested by USTR Lighthizer) for addressing erroneous decisions.

4. Both Canada and the European Union talk about any reform process as being forward looking only and not addressing the harm caused by the long history of AB deviation from obligations. Since the entire purpose of the dispute settlement system is to resolve disputes to permit a restoration of rights and obligations of Members, the notion that a system which has changed the rights and obligations of Members over 25 years cannot be addressed as part of reform is at least bizarre. There is no question that it is easier to simply adopt changes to the DSU and move forward but that basically legitimizes a wide range of erroneous decisions which have significantly changed the balance of rights and obligations for many Members. While the challenge of finding a path to address the past as part of the reform is real, there are undoubtedly ways to do so. I had suggested one approach in a prior post. See July 12, 2020, WTO Appellate Body reform – revisiting thoughts on how to address U.S. concerns, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/07/12/wtos-appellate-body-reform-revisiting-thoughts-on-how-to-address-u-s-concerns/.

5. The concern about wrongly decided Appellate Body reports is real and not really addressed by most of the panelists. Amb. Lighthizer in his Wall Street Journal piece has a proposal which would change the system to one-tier resembling commercial arbitration and with an ability of Members to correct erroneous decisions. This proposal may reflect U.S. concerns that other WTO Members haven’t meaningfully addressed the problem of erroneous AB decisions (whether overreach or faulty legal analysis). See August 24, 2020:  USTR Lighthizer’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal – How to Set World Trade Straight, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/08/24/ustr-lighthizers-op-ed-in-the-wall-street-journal-how-to-set-world-trade-straight/. If one looks at Mr. Miranda’s paper, there is little doubt that there are decisions from the AB that are pretty clearly wrongly decided. Efforts in the AB reform process to confirm that there are no precedents doesn’t move the ball very far where prior decisions remain as a body for review without means to get the AB to recognize its mistakes in subsequent cases, for the WTO Membership to correct the AB or through other means.

6. The concept that the current situation will adversely affect willingness of Members to negotiate is interesting particularly when juxtaposed with the last twenty-five years of very limited success in negotiations at the WTO. So while there may be some merit in the concern (which is a supposition at this point), it is hard to imagine a less productive negotiating function than what has existed with a functioning dispute settlement system over the last 25 years. The U.S. view that the current system and willingness of the AB to create rights that can’t be found in the agreements is factually the more compelling. I have travelled to Geneva over the last thirty years and have been told in private by virtually every major WTO Member that they know there are issues that before the WTO they would have teed up for negotiations, but because of the activity of the AB, they chose to see if they could get through dispute settlement even though knowing their trading partners had never agreed to what was being sought. So in my mind, there is no doubt that a major contributor to the dysfunction of the negotiating function at the WTO has been the willingness of the Appellate Body to create rights and obligations that cannot be found in the Agreements that sovereign states agreed to.

7. On the MPIA, while there is understanding by all Members that the MPIA is intended to be temporary, there is little doubt that the MPIA includes aspects of the AB that the U.S. has viewed as very problematic. While the EU professes that there is no effort at reform in the MPIA, the MPIA includes aspects that the EU may want as reforms to the dispute settlement system. Finally, other Members have found other approaches to handle disputes in an era when the AB is not functioning. While that is not true for all disputes, the Members choosing to appeal into a void include the EU, a participant of MPIA, on a panel decision adverse to its interests brought by the Russian Federation. See August 29, 2020,  WTO Dispute Settlement Body meeting of August 28, 2020 – how disputes are being handled in the absence of reform of the Appellate Body, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/08/29/wto-dispute-settlement-body-meeting-of-july-28-2020-how-disputes-are-being-handled-in-the-absence-of-reform-of-the-appellate-body/.

Conclusion

The program on WTO Dispute Settlement – where do we stand? was an interesting update from a number of the major WTO Members, the Chairman of the Dispute Settlement Body and two well respected private sector advisers.

While all seem to recognize that the United States has serious concerns that it has articulated for decades but has spelled out in detail in the last three years, there has been little movement on the substantive issues during the last fifteen months. The gap between having a binding system that resolves disputes between parties but doesn’t create jurisprudence and a binding system that creates jurisprudence is wide. While many talk the talk that the Appellate Body is not a court and its members are not judges, there hasn’t been an apparent active effort to translate that into a framework to compare with the U.S. view of the role of the system.

Without a willingness to actually have the Appellate Body serve the very limited role for which it was created, the future for the WTO dispute settlement system will likely look like the hodgepodge of approaches that are presently in play.