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March 27, 2020 Agreement on Interim Arbitration Process by EU and 15 other WTO Members to Handle Appeals While Appellate Body is Not Operational

With the reduction in members of the Appellate Body from three to one after December 10, 2019, the WTO’s Appellate Body has not been in a position to handle new appeals nor to complete a range of other appeals that were pending where no hearing had occurred. The United States has blocked consideration of replacements while solutions to its substantive and procedural concerns with the actions of the Appellate Body are developed. As it is unlikely that U.S. concerns will be resolved in the near term, a number of WTO Members have been searching for alternative approaches to maintain a second stage review in disputes where one or more parties desires that second stage review.

Specifically, a number of WTO Members have wanted to establish an arbitration framework for disputes between Members willing to abide by such a framework. The European Union has been one of the most outspoken on the topic and had completed agreements with Canada and Norway ahead of Davos this year.

On the sidelines of Davos, a significant number of countries indicated a desire to find a common approach on arbitration to address the lack of Appellate Body review until such time as the operation of the Appellate Body was restored.

On March 27, 2020, a Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement Pursuant to Article 25 of the DSU was agreed to by to the following WTO Members — Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland and Uruguay. The text of the arrangement is here, https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/march/tradoc_158685.pdf. The arrangement is open to other Members should they opt to join at a future date.

As stated in the Ministerial Statement released yesterday, https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/march/tradoc_158684.pdf

“Further to the Davos statement of 24 January 2020, we, the Ministers of Australia; Brazil; Canada; China; Chile; Colombia; Costa Rica; European Union; Guatemala; Hong Kong, China; Mexico; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; and Uruguay, have decided [1] to put in place a Multi-party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement (MPIA) on the basis of the attached document. This arrangement ensures, pursuant to Article 25 of the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding, that any disputes among us will continue benefitting from a functioning dispute settlement system at the WTO, including the availability of an independent and impartial appeal stage.

“We believe that such WTO dispute settlement system is of the utmost importance for a rules-based trading system. The arrangement is open to any WTO Member, and we welcome any WTO Member to join.

“We wish to underscore the interim nature of this arrangement. We remain firmly and actively committed to resolving the impasse of the Appellate Body appointments as a matter of priority and urgency, including through necessary reforms. The arrangement therefore will remain in effect only until the Appellate Body is again fully functional.

“We intend for the arrangement to be officially communicated to the WTO in the coming weeks.

“1/ Subject to the completion of respective domestic procedures, where applicable.”

The European Commission reviewed the significance of yesterday’s group decision in a press release:

“The EU and 15 other members of the WTO today decided on an arrangement that will allow them to bring appeals and solve trade disputes among them despite the current paralysis of the WTO Appellate Body. Given its strong and unwavering support for a rules-based trading system, the EU has been a leading force in the process to establish this contingency measure in the WTO.

“Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan said: ‘ Today’s agreement delivers on the political commitment taken at ministerial level in Davos in January. This is a stop-gap measure to reflect the temporary paralysis of the WTO’s appeal function for trade disputes. This agreement bears testimony to the conviction held by the EU and many other countries that in times of crisis working together is the best option. We will continue our efforts to restore the appeal function of the WTO dispute settlement system as a matter of priority. In the meantime, I invite other WTO Members to join this open
arrangement, crucial for the respect and enforcement of international trade rules.’

“The Multiparty Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement mirrors the usual WTO appeal rules and can be used between any members of the Organisation willing to join, as long as the WTO Appellate Body is not fully functional.

“Today’s agreement underscores the importance that the participating WTO members – Australia; Brazil; Canada; China; Chile; Colombia; Costa Rica; the European Union; Guatemala; Hong Kong, China; Mexico; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; and Uruguay – attach to a functioning two-step dispute settlement system at the WTO. Such a system guarantees that trade disputes can be resolved through an impartial and independent adjudication, which is essential for the multilateral trading system based on rules.

“We expect the Multiparty Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement to be officially notified to the WTO in the coming weeks, once the respective WTO Members complete their internal procedures, after which it will become operational.”

https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_538.

The Interim Appeal Arrangement

Led by the European Union, the interim appeal arrangement looks a lot like an appeal to the Appellate Body and that is by design. As stated in paragraph 3 of the arrangement, “3. The appeal arbitration procedure will be based on the substantive and procedural aspects of Appellate Review pursuant to Article 17 of the DSU, in order to keep its core features, including independence and impartiality, while enhancing the procedural efficiency of appeal proceedings.” Many parts of practice and procedure of the Appellate Body are incorporated into the appeal arbitration procedures (Annex 1) and included in the text of the arrangement itself.

Arbitrations will be heard by three members of a standing pool of 10 appeal arbitrators who may be current or former Appellate Body members or other qualified individuals. See Annex 2. Such current and former AB members are not subject to any additional vetting if nominated by one of the signatories. Selection for serving on an appeal arbitration, similar to the Appellate Body, will be subject to rotation.

The participating Members are looking to the WTO Secretariat to provide “appropriate administrative and legal support”, that such support “will be entirely separate from the WTO Secretariat staff”. Stated differently, the participating Members are seeking the maintenance of something like the Appellate Body Secretariat but as an interim appellate arbitration group or secretariat.

The participating Members are permitting arbitration to be completed in 90 days (subject to extension approved by the parties) and give arbitrators authority to streamline proceedings to accomplish the 90 day timeline (page limits, time limits, etc.).

The full text of the interim arrangement and two appendices is embedded below.

3-27-2020-multi-party-interim-appeal-arbitration-arrangement-pursuant-to-Article-25-of-the-DSU

Approach of Other WTO Members

Time will tell the success of the interim appeal arbitration arrangement both among the existing participants and on any future participants.

The United States and many other Members are not presently participants in the interim agreement though that could, of course change as the arrangement is open to additional Members joining. Existing Members not participating in the arrangement include Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Argentina, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Ukraine and many others.

Where a Member does not participate in the interim agreement, there are a wide range of options for the resolution of disputes including a bilateral agreement between the parties either during consultations or during the panel process, agreement to adopt the panel report without appeal or separate arbitration procedures agreed by the parties to a dispute. The U.S. and India in a pending dispute have also simply agreed to hold up any appellate review until such time as the Appellate Body is functioning again. Time will also reveal how well alternative dispute resolution approaches work for WTO Members.

What is certain is that absent a resolution of the underlying concerns raised by the United States over the last several years, the WTO dispute settlement system will be in a period of uncertainty with various approaches possible to resolve disputes but no clarification of the proper role of dispute settlement within the WTO.

Will the Interim Arrangement Promote Resolution of Long-Standing Problems with WTO Dispute Settlement?

While the participating Members to the interim agreement all state a commitment to pursue the prompt resolution to the WTO dispute settlement system challenges, the reality on the ground does not appear to match the rhetoric. While the U.S. has presented detailed information on its concerns and asked for engagement by Members to understand the “why” of the current situation, many Members have limited their engagement to suggesting modifications of the existing Dispute Settlement Understanding that do little more than repeat existing requirements – requirements which have been routinely flouted by the Appellate Body. Nor have Members advanced either an understanding or approaches for resolving the large number of instances where the Appellate Body has created rights or obligations not agreed to by Members. Thus, there has not been meaningful forward movement in recent months on the long-standing problems identified with the WTO dispute settlement system. Nothing in the interim arrangement augurs for an improved likelihood of resolution.

Moreover, the adoption of an interim arrangement that cloaks itself in much of the Appellate Body rules and procedures and is likely to have a number of former Appellate Body members in its pool of arbitrators is likely to create additional challenges as time goes by particularly in terms of the relevance of arbitral awards other than to the parties to the arbitration, whether existing problems are perpetuated through the interim appeal arbitration process, etc. There may also be short term challenges to the propriety of arbitrators being supported by a separate group of staff and who will pay for such services.

Conclusion

For WTO Members liking the past operation of the Appellate Body and wanting a second phase review of disputes that approximates the Appellate Body approach under the DSU, the interim appeal arbitration agreement will provide an approach while the Appellate Body itself is not functional. The WTO Members who are participating are significant users of the WTO dispute settlement system. More may join in the months ahead.

At the same time, other approaches to resolving disputes continue to be available to WTO Members and used by various Members.

There is nothing wrong with multiple approaches for handling resolution of disputes.

At the same time, nothing in the interim agreement or the actions of the participants to that agreement in the first quarter of 2020 provides any reason to believe the participants are working any harder to reach a resolution on the longstanding concerns of the United States on the actual operation of the Appellate Body.

Rule of law issues include seeing that the dispute settlement system operates within the confines of the authority defined by the Dispute Settlement Understanding. That has not been the case for many actions by the Appellate Body as well documented by the United States.

There won’t be meaningful forward movement in WTO reform or restoration of the two-step dispute settlement system until Members are able to both understand why the Appellate Body has deviated so widely from its limited role and fashion solutions that will ensure a properly functioning dispute settlement system that supports the other functions of the WTO and doesn’t replace or handicap them. Yesterday’s announcement of the interim agreement does nothing to advance those underlying needs.

WTO Dispute Settlement – January 24, 2020 Statement by Ministers at Davos, Switzerland on Interim Appeal Arrangement Amongst Certain Major Countries

The WTO’s Appellate Body has not been in a position to handle any appeals from panel reports where the appeal was filed after December 10, 2019 and is processing some but not all of the appeals that were pending on that date. This situation flows from the existence of just one of seven Appellate Body slots currently being filled and the Dispute Settlement Understanding (“DSU”)requirement that appeals be heard by three members of the Appellate Body. The slots are unfilled as the United States has blocked the start of the process over the last two years while pressing WTO Members to acknowledge longstanding problems in how disputes are handled and to come up with effective reforms. For the United States, this requires WTO Members to come to grips with why clear requirements of the DSU were being ignored or violated by the Appellate Body.

For most members of the WTO, achieving a resolution of the dispute settlement impasse is a high priority with many countries looking to see if some form of interim approach could be adopted by those with an interest in having an interim process for a second tier review of panel reports by participating members. The European Union had announced bilateral arrangements with Canada and with Norway in 2019 and discussions have occurred with and among other countries about whether arbitration-type arrangements based on Article 25 of the DSU should be agreed to during the period when a solution to the impasse is pursued.

Earlier this week on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum, ministers from a number of WTO Members issued a statement indicating that a large number of WTO Members would work towards contingency measures. The statement was on behalf of seventeen WTO Members (46 Members if the EU’s 28 member countries are counted instead of the EU). The list includes a number of large trading nations including the EU, China, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia and Korea along with ten others (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Singapore, Sitzerland and Uruguay. The joint statement follows:

Statement by Ministers, Davos, Switzerland, 24 January 2020
“’We, the Ministers of Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, European Union, Guatemala, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Singapore, Switzerland, Uruguay, remain committed to work with the whole WTO membership to find a lasting improvement to the situation relating to the WTO Appellate Body. We believe that a functioning dispute settlement system of the WTO is of the utmost importance for a rules-based trading system, and that an independent and impartial appeal stage must continue to be one of its essential features.

“Meanwhile, we will work towards putting in place contingency measures that would allow for appeals of WTO panel reports in disputes among ourselves, in the form of a multi-party interim appeal arrangement based on Article 25 of the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding, and which would be in place only and until a reformed WTO Appellate Body becomes fully operational. This arrangement will be open to any WTO Member willing to join it.

“We have instructed our officials to expeditiously finalise work on such an arrangement.

We have also taken proper note of the recent engagement of President Trump on WTO reform.’”

https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/january/tradoc_158596.pdf

Since Australia and Brazil had been looking at a different approach than that announced by the EU and Canada or the EU and Norway, it will be interesting to see what type of contingency measures the larger group agrees upon. The U.S. had significant problems with the EU approach when it was announced last year as it simply continued many of the problems that the U.S. has identified as needing correction. A similar approach by the larger group would likely add complications to finding a permanent solution and also likely discourage at least some other WTO Members from joining the group’s approach.

Likely Coverage of Disputes by the 17 WTO Members

There are 164 WTO Members at the present time and there have been a total of 593 requests for consultations filed by WTO Members since the WTO came into existence in January 1995. The WTO webpage lists all disputes where a Member has been the complainant, the respondent or acted as a third party. Not all requests for consultations result in panels being requested, and not all panel proceedings result in appeals being filed. But a review of number of requests for consultations filed by a Member and the number of such requests where a Member was the respondent helps understand the coverage likely from the seventeen Members (46 at individual country level) who released the joint statement.

However, the data from the WTO webpage needs to be modified to eliminate requests for consultations where one party was not one of the seventeen Members. The following table reviews the data and then corrects to eliminate cases where the complainant or respondent was not another of the seventeen Members.

WTO Member# of cases complainant # of cases respondentcomplainant among 17respondent among 17
Australia91644
Brazil3316117
Canada40231811
China2144519
Chile101346
Colombia5735
European Union10486*/1123323*/49
Guatemala10272
Korea211847
Mexico2515118
New Zealand9030
Norway5030
Panama7161
Singapore1010
Switzerland5020
Uruguay1111
Subtotal306242/26811694/120
All countries593593593593

NOTE: EU numbers as a respondent differ based on whether include cases where EU is listed or just one or more of the EU member states (26 individual member disputes).

While the seventeen Members are obviously important WTO trading nations and participants in the dispute settlement system, the percent of disputes where the seventeen members are engaged in disputes with each other is obviously much smaller than their total number of disputes. Thus, the seventeen members accounted for 51.6% of the requests for consultations filed in the first twenty-five years and were respondents in 45.2% of the requests for consultations. However, when disputes with any of the 118 WTO Members who are not part of the joint statement are removed, the seventeen Members accounted for 19.56% of the cases where one was a complainant and 20.2% of the cases where one was a respondent. This is not surprising as there are many important trading nations who are not part of the seventeen signatories who are active both as complainants and as respondents – United States, Japan, India, South Africa, Argentina to name just five.

Of course, WTO Members do not have to be part of a group interim arrangement to handle ongoing or new disputes. Members can agree not to take an appeal, can agree (as the U.S. and India have done in one case) to hold up appeal until the Appellate Body is back functioning, to name two approaches some are pursuing.

While an interim approach is obviously of interest to many, the core issue remains finding a road forward to address needed reforms to the dispute settlement system. There seems to be little progress on that front. Procedural issues appear easier to resolve if consequences are added for deviation from procedural requirements. However, there is little active consideration of how to address the problem of overreach both prospectively and retroactively to permit a restoration of rights and obligations where panel reports or Appellate Body decisions created obligations or rights not contained in the Agreements.

In a Member driven organization, the hard work of the Secretariat doesn’t overcome fundamentally different views of how the dispute settlement system is supposed to operate. Thus, while it is a positive development that Director-General Azevedo and his team will visit Washington in the near future to discuss U.S. reform ideas, the real challenge is getting agreement on what the system is supposed to be and how to restore the balance that existed when the WTO commenced in 1995.