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WTO Dispute Settlement Body Meeting of August 28, 2020 — How disputes are being handled in the absence of reform of the Appellate Body

No forward movement has been made on resolving the impasse of the WTO’s Appellate Body which effectively ceased to operate for new appeals after December 10, 2019 when the number of active Appellate Body members fell below the minimum of three needed to hear appeals. At every monthly Dispute Settlement Body meeting, one of the Members presents the proposal to start the process of selecting new Appellate Body members and the U.S. indicates it is not in a position to agree to that action.

While the impasse continues, Members are dealing with how to proceed on specific disputes that have been filed and how to deal with panel decisions that get issued. For the EU and 22 other Members who are parties to the multi-party interim appeal arrangement (MPIA), disputes involving two members of the MPIA are handled through the MPIA after a panel decision if one or both parties are dissatisifed with the panel decision. Current members of the MPIA are Australia, Benin, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the European Union, Guatemala, Hong Kong (China), Iceland, Mexico, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uruguay. This means that more than 110 WTO Members are not parties to the MPIA including the United States, Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Argentina, Peru, Egypt, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation and many others.

Disputes between all other WTO Members or between other Members and one of the MPIA members require the parties to the dispute either before the panel decision or afterwards to decide how they will proceed. Concerns of many WTO Members is that a party dissatisfied with a panel decision will take an appeal which will effectively stop resolution of the matter as an appeal cannot be heard while there is no functioning Appellate Body.

MPIA members can take appeals where they are in a dispute with a non-MPIA member instead of seeking resolution through other means. For example, the Russian Federation is not a member of the MPIA. Their dispute with the EU on its antidumping methodology resulted in a panel decision that the EU found problematic. The EU filed an appeal on August 28, 2020. See WTO, Dispute Settlement, EU appeals panel report on EU dumping methodologies, duties on Russian imports, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ds494apl_28aug20_e.htm. When raised at the August 28 dispute settlement body (DSB) meeting, Russia provided the following comment:

“The Russian Federation made a statement regarding the European Union’s appeal of the panel ruling in in DS494 (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds494_e.htm) (EU —
Cost Adjustment Methodologies and Certain Anti-Dumping Measures on Imports from Russia). Russia said it was disappointed with the EU’s decision and that that the EU’s action, in the absence of a functioning Appellate Body, essentially meant that the matter was being appealed “into the void.” The EU was seeking to escape its obligations by not trying to resolve the dispute,
Russia said.” https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dsb_28aug20_e.htm.

Interestingly, the EU has been working to be able to retaliate on any WTO Member who is not a party to the MPIA who appeals from a panel decision where the EU is a party. Presumably they understand that their action will encourage countries like the Russian Federation to take unilateral action against the EU where the EU appeals a panel decision instead of seeking a mutually agreeable solution.

The United States has reviewed at prior DSB meetings that there are many ways for Members to resolve disputes between themselves. At the recent DSB meeting, the U.S. in its prepared statement, after reviewing its ongoing concerns with the Appellate Body and the need to understand why the Appellate Body ignored the clear limits on its authority under the Dispute Settlement Understanding, provided examples of how Members are resolving disputes since December 10, 2019:

“ As discussions among Members continue, the dispute settlement system continues to function.

“ The central objective of that system remains unchanged: to assist the parties to find a solution to their dispute. As before, Members have many methods to resolve a dispute, including through bilateral engagement, alternative dispute procedures, and third-party adjudication.

“ As noted at prior meetings of the DSB, Members are experimenting and deciding what makes the most sense for their own disputes.

“ For instance, in Indonesia – Safeguard on Certain Iron or Steel Products (DS490/DS496), Chinese Taipei, Indonesia, and Vietnam reached procedural understandings that included an agreement not to appeal any compliance panel report.3

“ Similarly, in the dispute United States – Anti-Dumping Measures on Certain Oil Country Tubular Goods from Korea (DS488), Korea and the United States agreed not to appeal the report of any compliance panel.4

“ Australia and Indonesia have agreed not to appeal the panel report in the dispute Australia – Anti-Dumping Measures on A4 Copy Paper (DS529).5

“ Parties should make efforts to find a positive solution to their dispute, consistent with the aim of the WTO dispute settlement system.

“ The United States will continue to insist that WTO rules be followed by the WTO dispute settlement system. We will continue our efforts and our discussions with Members and with the Chair to seek a solution on these important issues.

“3 ‘Understanding between Indonesia and Chinese Taipei regarding Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU’, (WT/DS490/3) (April 11, 2019), para. 7 (‘The parties agree that if, on the date of the circulation of the panel report under Article 21.5 of the DSU, the Appellate Body is composed of fewer than three Members available to serve on a division in an appeal in these proceedings, they will not appeal that report under Articles 16.4 and 17 of the DSU.’) and ‘Understanding between Indonesia and Viet Nam regarding Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU’, WT/DS496/14 (March 22, 2019), para. 7 (‘The parties agree that if, on the date of the circulation of the panel report under Article 21.5 of the DSU, the Appellate Body is composed of fewer than three Members available to serve on a division in an appeal in these proceedings, they will not appeal that report under Articles 16.4 and 17 of the DSU.’).

“4 ‘Understanding between the Republic of Korea and the United States regarding Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU’, (WT/DS488/16) (February 6, 2020), para. 4 (‘Following circulation of the report of the Article 21.5 panel, either party may request adoption of the Article 21.5 panel report at a meeting of the DSB within 60 days of circulation of the report. Each party to the dispute agrees not to appeal the report of the Article 21.5 panel pursuant to Article 16.4 of the DSU.’).

“5 Minutes of the Meeting of the Dispute Settlement Body on January 27, 2020 (WT/DSB/M/440), paras. 4.2 (‘Indonesia also wished to thank Australia for working together with Indonesia in a spirit of cooperation in order to reach an agreement not to appeal the Panel Report’ and 4.3 (‘Australia and Indonesia had agreed not to appeal the Panel Report and to engage in good faith negotiations of a reasonable period of time for Australia to bring its measures into conformity with the DSB’s recommendations and rulings, in accordance with Article 21.3(b) of the DSU.’).”

Statements by the United States at the Meeting of the WTO Dispute Settle- ment Body, Geneva, August 28, 2020 at 14, https://geneva.usmission.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/290/Aug28.DSB_.Stmt_.as-deliv.fin_.public.pdf.

Thus, there are ways for WTO Members to resolve disputes between themselves even with the Appellate Body inoperative. Some countries, like Australia, have sought positive resolutions where the other disputing party is not a member of MPIA. To date, the European Union has not sought resolution with members who are not party to the MPIA but have rather filed appeals so cases will sit in limbo until such time as the impasse is resolved.

Concluding comments

While each of the eight candidates to become the next Director-General of the WTO believe resolution of the dispute settlement system impasse is an important priority for the WTO, they differ in how quickly they believe Members will be able to overcome the impasse — Dr. Jesus Seade (Mexico) believes it can be resolved in the first 100 days. Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi believes that the challenges presented will not be resolved ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021 but will be resolved sometime thereafter. Most other candidates hold out hope that the impasse can be resolved by the next Ministerial in 2021. Thus, the current situation of no functioning Appellate Body may continue for some time.

The U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in an Op Ed last week in the Wall Street Journal suggested that reform of the dispute settlement system is critical but may involve changing the system from its existing two-tiered configuration under the DSU to a one-tier process more like commercial arbitration. If that is the path that the United States pursues, resolution of the current situation will take years. 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/.

Similarly, if dispute settlement reform is lumped into the broader WTO reform being discussed, the timing will be significantly delayed if reform of the WTO is to be meaningful and return the organization to a place of relevance in the 21st century.

With the queue of panel decisions that are yet due this year involving some high profile issues (e.g., national security actions by the United States on steel and aluminum and retaliation taken by many trading partners) and with the recent panel report on the U.S. countervailing duty order on Canadian softwood lumber, pressure will likely build on WTO Members to find a lasting solution to the current impasse. Increased pressure suggests heightened tensions in an organization already suffering from distrust among Members and, as a result, largely nonfunctioning pillars of negotiation, notification/monitoring, dispute settlement. In short, 2021 promises to be a challenging environment for the WTO Members and the incoming Director-General.