Hong Kong

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.

Counterfeit and Contraband Goods — Issuance of A Presidential Executive Order on January 31, 2020

Rounding out a busy January on trade issues, President Trump on January 31st issued an Executive Order (“EO”) addressing the ballooning volume of illicit trade (counterfeit and pirated goods). The EO is directed at traffickers and those seeking to avoid U.S. customs duties, taxes, and fees but will also affect “express consignment operators, carriers, hub facilities, international posts, customs brokers, and other entities, including e-commerce platform operators”.

Executive Order 13904 of January 31, 2020, on Counterfeit Goods

The Executive Order issued by President Trump follows the issuance of a Memorandum on Combating Trafficking in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods from the President issued on April 3, 2019, calling for a study by the Department of Homeland Security on the extent of the problem and presenting suggested potential solutions. See, e.g., https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/memorandum-combating-trafficking-counterfeit-pirated-goods/.

  1. April 3, 2019 Presidential Memorandum

President Trump’s April 3, 2019 Memorandum was a call for a coordinated game plan by the Administration on addressing the challenges posed by counterfeit and pirated goods including via the internet. Here is the relevant part of the Memorandum:

“Section 1.  Policy and Background.  (a)  It is the policy of my Administration to protect American businesses, intellectual property rights holders, consumers, national and economic security, and the American public from the dangers and negative effects of counterfeit and pirated goods, including those that are imported through online third-party marketplaces and other third-party intermediaries.  We must improve coordinated efforts within the Federal Government to address this challenge, which are led by the Attorney General, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, through the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, and the United States Trade Representative.

“(b)  Counterfeit trafficking impairs economic competitiveness by harming United States intellectual property rights holders and diminishing the reputations and trustworthiness of online markets; cheats consumers and poses risks to their health and safety; and may threaten national security and public safety through the introduction of counterfeit goods destined for the Department of Defense and other critical infrastructure supply chains.  An estimate from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates the value of trade in counterfeit and pirated goods to be approximately half a trillion dollars per annum, with roughly 20 percent of this trade infringing upon intellectual property belonging to United States persons.  A recent Government Accountability Office report examined four categories of frequently counterfeited goods, and, based on a small sample of these goods purchased through various online third-party marketplaces, found that more than 40 percent were counterfeit.

“(c)  Preventing the manufacture, importation, and sale of counterfeit and pirated goods is a priority for Federal law enforcement agencies.

“(d)  Existing efforts within the Federal Government to deter online trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods through third-party intermediaries should be expanded and enhanced to better address the scale, scope, and consequences of counterfeit and pirated goods trafficking.

“(e)  Third-party intermediaries, including online third party marketplaces, carriers, customs brokers, payment providers, vendors, and others involved in international transactions, can all be beneficial partners in combating trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods.  In order to build on cooperative efforts that are already underway with such partners, a coordinated approach by the Federal Government, including its law enforcement agencies, and private industry is needed.

“(f)  Comprehensive data regarding the extent of counterfeit trafficking through online third-party marketplaces are lacking.

“Sec. 2.  Report on the State of Counterfeit and Pirated Goods Trafficking and Recommendations.  (a)  Within 210 days of the date of this memorandum, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of Commerce, and in consultation with the Attorney General, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Trade Representative, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, the Assistant to the President for Trade and Manufacturing Policy, the heads of other executive departments and agencies (agencies) and offices as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall prepare and submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and the Assistant to the President for Trade and Manufacturing Policy.  In preparing the report, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of Commerce, shall, consistent with applicable law, consult with intellectual property rights holders, third-party intermediaries, and other stakeholders.

“(b)  The report shall:

“(i)     Analyze available data and other information to develop a deeper understanding of the extent to which online third-party marketplaces and other third party intermediaries are used to facilitate the importation and sale of counterfeit and pirated goods; identify the factors that contribute to trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods; and describe any market incentives and distortions that may contribute to third-party intermediaries facilitating trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods.  This review should include data regarding the origins of counterfeit and pirated goods and the types of counterfeit and pirated goods that are trafficked, along with any other relevant data, and shall provide a foundation for any recommended administrative, regulatory, legislative, or policy changes.

“(ii)    Evaluate the existing policies and procedures of third-party intermediaries relating to trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods, and identify the practices of those entities that have been most effective in curbing the importation and sale of counterfeit and pirated goods, including those conveyed through online third-party marketplaces.  The report should also evaluate the effectiveness of Federal efforts, including the requirement for certain Federal contractors to establish and maintain a system to detect and avoid counterfeit electronic parts under the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) 252.246-7007, as well as steps taken by foreign governments, such as France and Canada, to combat trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods.

“(iii)   To the extent that certain types of data are not currently available to the Federal Government, or accessible in a readily usable form, recommend changes to the data collection practices of agencies, including specification of categories of data that should be collected and appropriate standardization practices for data.

“(iv)    Identify appropriate administrative, statutory, regulatory, or other changes, including enhanced enforcement actions, that could substantially reduce trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods or promote more effective law enforcement regarding trafficking in such goods.  The report should address the practices of counterfeiters and pirates, including their shipping, fulfillment, and payment logistics, and assess means of mitigating the factors that facilitate trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods.

“(v)     Identify appropriate guidance that agencies may provide to third-party intermediaries to help them prevent the importation and sale of counterfeit and pirated goods.

“(vi)    Identify appropriate administrative, regulatory, legislative, or policy changes that would enable agencies, as appropriate, to more effectively share information regarding counterfeit and pirated goods, including suspected counterfeit and pirated goods, with intellectual property rights holders, consumers, and third-party intermediaries.

“(vii)   Evaluate the current and future resource needs of agencies and make appropriate recommendations for more effective detection, interdiction, investigation, and prosecution regarding trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods, including trafficking through online third-party marketplaces and other third-party intermediaries.  These recommendations should include suggestions for increasing the use of effective technologies and expanding collaboration with third party intermediaries, intellectual property rights holders, and other stakeholders.

“(viii)  Identify areas for collaboration between the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security on efforts to combat trafficking in counterfeit and pirated goods.

“(c)  Within 30 days of submitting the report required by section 2(a) of this memorandum, the Secretary of Homeland Security is authorized and directed to prepare, consistent with applicable law, a public version of the report and publish it in the Federal Register.”

2. The January 24, 2020 Report to the President from Homeland Security, Combating Trafficking in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods.

Last month, following outreach to stakeholders, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) submitted its report to President Trump. Combating Trafficking in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods, Report to the President of the United States, January 24, 2020 (“January 24, 2020 DHS Report” or “Report”). https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/20_0124_plcy_counterfeit-pirated-goods-report_01.pdf.

It is this report that was relied upon for Executive Order 13904 issued on January 31.

The report reviews the severity of the problem counterfeiting and pirated goods pose to the U.S. economy, U.S. competitiveness, health and safety and to national security. It references information gained from other studies and from the private sector. For example, a 2018 report from the OECD, Governance Frameworks to Counter Illicit Trade, is cited by DHS for its finding that there was “a 154 percent increase in counterfeits traded internationally – from $200 billion in 2005 to $509 billion in 2016.” January 24 DHS Report at 4. “Relevant to the President’s inquiry into the linkages between e-commerce and counterfeiting, OECD reports that ‘E-commerce platforms represent ideal storefronts for counterfeits and provide powerful platform[s] for counterfeiters and pirates to engage large numbers of potential consumers.’1/” Page 4 of the Report citing OECD, Governance Frameworks to Counter Illicit Trade, Illicit Trade, OECD Publishing, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264291652-en.

The health problems from counterfeit medicines and food products have been widely reported over the last decade or more with knock-of medicines not containing the proper elements. Similarly, counterfeit food products (for humans and animals) may be made with fillers that may cause health problems or even death. The quantity of counterfeit auto and defense sector parts, made of inferior materials and not to manufacturer or government specifications create quality issues and can pose problems for national security. The examples are endless and are found around the world.

The report reviews the complications in combating counterfeit and pirated goods with the growth of e-commerce, the shift from ship cargo shipments to express delivery and mail shipments, from expanded de minimis levels and reduced information from such shipments, and from failure of the private sector to broadly adopt best practices to reduce availability of such goods.

The report both identifies product categories with high levels of counterfeit and pirated goods, some of the major sources of such goods, and provides a list of actions for the U.S. Government and a list of best practices for the private sector involved in e-commerce platforms and third-party marketplaces.

For example, Customs and Border Protection publishes data on annual seizures of goods involving intellectual property rights. The top ten product categories from 2018 were wearing apparel/accessories, footwear, watches/jewelry, handbags/wallets, consumer electronics, consumer products, pharmaceuticals/personal care, optical medial, toys and computers/accessories. Seizures also occur of prohibited substances (e.g., drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, LSD, DMT, etc.). January 24, 2020 DHS Report at 10 and 16.

While China is identified as the largest source of counterfeit and pirated goods (id.at 8), other countries are obviously also the source of such goods. China, Hong Kong, Singapore and India were identified as having shipped 97 percent of the counterfeit medicines seized in the U.S. Id at 17.

The report makes clear that there are many actions that the U.S. government must take to deal with the evolving threat from counterfeit and pirated goods. However, the report and private sector input also make clear that there must be a stronger government-private sector partnership for future efforts to be successful. Below are the summary tables from the Report on government actions and best practices for the private sector that are meant to address both government and private sector practices.

From page 5 of the Report:

Immediate Actions by DHS and Recommendations for the U.S. Government

  1. Ensure Entities with Financial Interests in Imports Bear Responsibility
  2. Increase Scrutiny of Section 321 Environment
  3. Suspend and Debar Repeat Offenders; Act Against Non-Compliant International Posts
  4. Apply Civil Fines, Penalties and Injunctive Actions for Violative Imported Products
  5. Leverage Advance Electronic Data for Mail Mode
  6. Anti-Counterfeiting Consortium to Identify Online Nefarious Actors (ACTION) Plan
  7. Analyze Enforcement Resources
  8. Create Modernized E-Commerce Enforcement Framework
  9. Assess Contributory Trademark Infringement Liability for Platforms
  10. Re-Examine the Legal Framework Surrounding Non-Resident Importers
  11. Establish a National Consumer Awareness Campaign

From page 6 of the Report:

Best Practices for E-Commerce Platforms and Third-Party Marketplaces

  1. Comprehensive “Terms of Service” Agreements
  2. Significantly Enhanced Vetting of Third-Party Sellers
  3. Limitations on High Risk Products
  4. Rapid Notice and Takedown Procedures
  5. Enhanced Post-Discovery Actions
  6. Indemnity Requirements for Foreign Sellers
  7. Clear Transactions Through Banks that Comply with U.S. Enforcement Requests for Information
    (RFI)
  8. Pre-Sale Identification of Third-Party Sellers
  9. Establish Marketplace Seller ID
  10. Clearly Identifiable Country of Origin Disclosures

3. Executive Order 13904, 85 Fed. Reg. 6725-6729

The Executive Order (“EO”) was issued on January 31, 2020 and published in the Federal Register on February 5. The EO lays out the Administration’s policy on addressing the problems of counterfeit and pirated goods in e-commerce, including its intent to not permit those engaged in such conduct to be able to do business with the U.S. government or to engage in importing or to avoid liability under U.S. law. Section 1 of the EO, 85 FR 6725.

Section 2 of the EO instructs DHS to engage in rulemaking to establish criteria importers must meet in order to obtain an importer of record number. One such criteria shall be that any person seeking a number has not been debarred or suspended by CBP “for lack of present responsibility”. 85 FR at 6725-6726.

Section 3 of the EO outlines responsibilities of express consignment operators, carriers, hub facilities and licensed customs brokers (‘group”) including to identify efforts of individuals or entities not entitled to importer of record status to resume trade. DHS through CBP is also instructed to consider measures against any member or members of the group who facilitate business by those not entitled to importer of record rights. 85 FR at 6726.

Sections 4 and 5 deal with efforts to be undertaken by the U.S. Postal Service in conjunction with other parts of the Administration to work with the international postal network to adopt similar restrictions as are contained in Section 2 and to provide a series actions the U.S. will take against foreign posts that are deemed not to be compliant. 85 FR at 6726-6727.

Section 6 reviews Administration intention to publish more information on seizures pertaining to illicit trade. It also calls on the Attorney General to make available resources to ensure Federal prosecutors will accord a high priority to going after import violations of the EO. 85 FR at 6727.

Section 7, reflecting the concern of DHS that import fees are not sufficient to cover the costs evaluating imports and importers for counterfeit and pirated goods, orders DHS to prepare a report on the adequacy of current fees and suggesting modifications if appropriate and consistent with U.S. law. 85 FR at 6727-6728.

Conclusion

There is strong support in the Congress and amongst the business community for strong enforcement against illicit trade, including shutting down counterfeit and pirated goods.

The growth of e-commerce has had many positive effects on the U.S. and world economies. It has also unleashed a massively expanding capability of those engaged in counterfeiting and the pirating of goods to market such goods to consumers in the U.S. and around the world without consequence. The risks identified in the DHS Report to manufacturers, to consumers, to health and safety and to national security are real and expanding.

The tension between growing e-commerce and ensuring that all players in the e-commerce system bear responsibility to address shutting down counterfeit and pirated goods is apparent in the Executive Order and the disciplines it does and doesn’t impose on players.

Similarly, the business community (particularly those involved in e-commerce, express delivery and the retail sector) have pushed hard for larger de minimis level imports to facilitate the movement of trade. As the DHS report makes clear, however, those engaged in shipping counterfeit and pirated goods are working the de minimis process to make identification of their products harder. The Report envisions making the de minimis exception harder to hide behind where users may be suspected on engaging in illicit trade.

The EO and related actions described above have the potential to strengthen enforcement in this important area of global commerce. Time will tell whether the actions envisioned will be enough to make a difference in fact in the rate and direction of growth of counterfeit and pirated goods.

WTO Reform – Will Limits on Who Enjoys Special and Differential Treatment Be Achieved?

The GATT had and now the WTO has a system of self-declared status as a developing country. The vast majority of WTO members have declared themselves to be developing countries. Some WTO members are categorized by the United Nations as Least Developed Countries (“LDCs”). Indeed the WTO webpage indicates that 36 of 47 LDCs are currently WTO members and that another eight countries who are listed as LDCs by the UN are in the process of negotiating accession to the WTO. “There are no WTO definitions of ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ countries. Developing countries in the WTO are designated on the basis of self-selection although this is not necessarily automatically accepted in all WTO bodies.” https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/org7_e.htm.

The relevance of a WTO member declaring themselves to be a developing country has to do with access to special and differential treatment provisions in virtually every agreement and the likelihood of reduced trade liberalization obligations on the member and in any ongoing negotiations. Thus, in the Uruguay Round, developing countries typically faced lower percent reductions on tariffs and were given longer time periods to implement such reductions than were true for developed countries. A report by the WTO Secretariat reviews Special and Differential Treatment (“S&D”) by agreement and categorizes the S&D provisions under one of the following six groupings (WT/COMTD/W/239 at 4) which are quoted as presented:

  1. provisions aimed at increasing the trade opportunities of developing country Members;
  2. provisions under which WTO Members should safeguard the itnerests of developing country Members;
  3. flexibility of commitments, of action, and use of policy instruments;
  4. transitional time-periods;
  5. technical assistance;
  6. provisions relating to LDC members.

The listing of S&D provisions in the Secretariat document is provided as an attachment below along with a correction.

WTCOMTDW239

WTCOMTDW239C1

With the progress many countries or customs territories have made during their GATT and/or WTO membership, the self-selection designation process has raised concerns by other members about whether certain Members are carrying their weight in terms of market liberalization. Indeed, some have attributed the failure of the Doha Agenda to conclude in 2008 to what certain Members who have declared themselves to be developing countries were willing to do in terms of liberalization versus other major Members who are not “developing”. The issue of who should benefit from Special and Differential treatment takes as a given that all LDCs should receive such benefits. The issue is about whether those non-LDCs who have experienced strong growth and significant economic advancement since the start of the WTO should continue to enjoy those benefits in new agreements.

The United States at the beginning of 2019 made a major submission entitled “An Undifferentiated WTO: Self-Declared Development Status Risks Institutional Irrelevance”. WT/GC/W/757, 16 January 2019. A revision was submitted in February and was followed by a draft General Council Decision to limit who can claim S&D benefits in future negotiations and agreements. WT/GC/W/747/Rev.1; WT/GC/W/764. The U.S. proposal in February was as follows:

“The General Council,

Acknowledging that full implementation of WTO rules as negotiated by Members can contribute to economic growth and development and the need to take steps to facilitate full implementation;

Recognizing the great strides made by several WTO Members since the establishment of the WTO in accomplishing the goals set out in the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, of ‘raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a large and steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand, and expanding the production of and trade in goods and services, while allowing for the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with
the objective of sustainable development…;’

Recognizing that not all WTO Members have enjoyed equal rates of economic growth and development since the establishment of the WTO;

Recognizing the plight of the least-developed countries and the need to ensure their effective participation in the world trading system, and to take further measures to improve their trading opportunities;

Recognizing that reserving flexibilities for those WTO Members with the greatest difficulty integrating into the multilateral trading system can open new export opportunities for such countries; and

Desiring to strengthen the negotiating function of the WTO to produce high-standard, reciprocal and mutually advantageous arrangements directed to the substantial reduction of tariffs and other barriers to trade and to the elimination of discriminatory treatment in international trade relations;

Agrees as follows:

“To facilitate the full implementation of future WTO agreements and to ensure that the maximum benefits of trade accrue to those Members with the greatest difficulty integrating into the multilateral trading system, the following categories of Members will not avail themselves of special and
differential treatment in current and future WTO negotiations:

“i. A WTO Member that is a Member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), or a WTO Member that has begun the accession process to the OECD;

“ii. A WTO Member that is a member of the Group of 20 (G20);

“iii. A WTO Member that is classified as a “high income” country by the World Bank; or

“iv. A WTO Member that accounts for no less than 0.5 per cent of global merchandise trade (imports and exports).

“Nothing in this Decision precludes reaching agreement that in sector-specific negotiations other Members are also ineligible for special and differential treatment.”

The self-designation of developing country within the GATT and the WTO has generally been seen by Members and outside observers as a “third rail” that could not be modified because of the certain opposition from those enjoying S&D benefits. Not surprisingly, the U.S. proposal has met with opposition from some important WTO Members who have declared themselves to be developing countries, including China, India, South Africa, Venezuela, Bolivia, Kenya and Cuba. See, e.g., WT/GC/W/765 and 765/Rev.1 (it does not appear that the U.S. proposal would affect the last four Members listed).

The U.S. has included the topic in each General Council meeting since its submissions, has engaged in discussions with many WTO members, and submitted a revised proposal in November 2019, WT/GC/W/764/Rev.1, which incorporated language reflecting its arguments throughout the year that

(1) the proposal would not require any country to declare itself not a developing country, just limit whether they received blanket S&D coverage in new agreements;

(2) the change would affect new agreements/negotiations and not affect S&D from existing arrangements;

(3) Members had the right to seek special accommodations on issues of particular importance to them.

There was also clarification of the third and fourth criteria for non-eligibility to reflect a three year period of meeting the criteria.

A few WTO Members who would be subject to the elimination of automatic entitlement to new S&D provisions if the U.S. proposal were adopted by the General Council have indicated that they will forego automatic S&D from future negotiations/agreements. These Members to date are Korea, Singapore and Brazil.

While the strong opposition from major WTO Members such as China, India and South Africa would indicate the U.S. proposal is not likely to be adopted in the foreseeable future, the U.S. has also indicate that it will oppose S&D provisions in future agreements if they are applicable to certain Members.

Indeed, President Trump on July 26, 2019 issued a Memorandum on Reforming Developing-Country Status in the World Trade Organization. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/memorandum-reforming-developing-country-status-world-trade-organization/. The Memo notes that many WTO members who have declared themselves developing countries are “patently unsupportable in light of current economic circumstances. For example, 7 out of the 10 wealthiest economies in the world as measured by Gross Domestic Product per capita on a purchasing-power parity basis – Brunei, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Macao, Qatar, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates – currently claim developing country status. Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey – members of both the G20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – also claim that status.” “China most dramatically illustrates the point.”

The memo goes on to instruct USTR to use all available means to secure changes at the WTO to prevent unwarranted use of S&D provisions and authorizes USTR to take action after 90 days if substantial progress is not made to no longer treat certain WTO members as developing countries and to not support any such country’s efforts to join the OECD.

USTR Robert Lighthizer issued a statement the day of the President’s Memo that reflected the position of the Administration:

“For far too long, wealthy countries have abused the WTO by exempting themselves from its rules through the use of special and differential treatment. This unfairness disadvantages Americans who ply by the rules, undermines negotiations at the WTO, and creates an unlevel playing field. I applaud the President’s leadership in demanding fairness and accountability at the WTO, and I look forward to implementing the President’s directive.” https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2019/july/ustr-robert-lighthizer-statement

Obviously trading partners have had an ongoing interest in the President’s Memo and how it is being implemented by the USTR. At the December 9, 2019 General Council meeting, as part of the U.S. discussion of its proposal, Ambassador Dennis Shea (Deputy USTR) stated as follows:

“Finally, I’d like to provide an update on the memorandum to USTR from the President of the United States in July.

“The President instructed USTR to no longer treat as a developing country for the purposes of the WTO any self-declared developing country that, in the USTR’s judgment, can inappropriately seek S&D in current and
future WTO negotiations. Some Members have asked how the USTR will carry this out.

“USTR consulted with the interagency Trade Policy Staff Committee on this issue. The interagency agreed that if a S&D provision is introduced in a WTO negotiation, the United States will indicate that it will not agree to that provision unless certain Members forego use of that provision. The United States will also use the TPR process to continue to press countries that we believe should not be claiming blanket S&D in future agreements. In addition, USTR is continuing to review additional steps that can be taken.

“The President issued two other instructions to the USTR.

“The USTR will not support the application for OECD membership of any self-declared developing country that, in the USTR’s judgment, can inappropriately seek S&D in current and future WTO negotiations.

“Also, USTR shall publish on its website a list of all self-declared developing countries that the USTR believes can inappropriately seek S&D in WTO negotiations.

“Members have asked when USTR will publish the list. USTR is consulting on this issue. The memo did not require USTR to publish the list by a speci􀃌c date.

“I’d like to emphasize two important aspects about the memo and the U.S. proposal that we would like Members to keep in mind.

“First, the President’s memo did not instruct USTR to ask any Member to change its self-declared development status. The U.S. proposal does not ask this of any Member, either.

“Second, the President’s memo did not instruct USTR to ask any Member to forego S&D in existing WTO agreements. The U.S. proposal does not ask this of any Member, either.”

https://geneva.usmission.gov/2019/12/09/ambassador-shea-procedures-to-strengthen-the-negotiating-function-of-the-wto/

As S&D provisions are part of every negotiation, the U.S. position obviously creates challenges to completing ongoing negotiations in any area, such as negotiations on fish subsidies, agriculture, digital trade without more countries agreeing not to seek S&D privileges or at least foregoing such privileges in certain agreements where there is U.S. opposition.

A quick look at some of the countries whom the U.S. proposal would remove from automatic S&D eligibility for new negotiations include the following:

Member of the OECD or in the accession process:

Chile, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, Colombia, Costa Rica.

Member of the G-20:

India, South Africa, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, China, Indonesia, South Korea.

Classified by World Banks as “high income” for 2016-2018 (includes):

Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Hong Kong, South Korea, Kuwait, Macao, Panama, Qatar, Seychelles, Singapore, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay.

0.5% of Merchandise Trade (includes):

China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa.

In light of the experience of the last two years on the need to reform the WTO Appellate Body, there should be little doubt that the United States will continue to push hard to achieve a more rational approach to the assumption of obligations at the WTO in terms of who should be eligible for S&D benefits in new agreements. Without movement by some major countries who currently enjoy S&D benefits to forego automatic eligibility in new agreements, the challenging negotiating environment at the WTO that has prevailed for many years now will become more challenging in 2020.