Interim arbitration agreement

WTO Dispute Settlement – With Appellate Body Currently Non-Operational, AB Secretariat Personnel Have Been Shifted to Other Divisions

As of December 11, 2019, there was only one remaining Appellate Body member whose term had not expired. Agreement amongst WTO Members permitted a number of pending appeals (those where hearings had already happened) to be completed even though this would mean completion by individuals whose terms had terminated but who would operate under AB rule 15. The last Appellate Body reports were released on June 9, 2020. AUSTRALIA – CERTAIN MEASURES CONCERNING TRADEMARKS, GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATIONS AND OTHER PLAIN PACKAGING REQUIREMENTS APPLICABLE TO TOBACCO PRODUCTS AND PACKAGING, WT/DS435/AB/R and WT/DS441/AB/R (9 June 2020).

The WTO has contractual arrangements with the remaining Appellate Body member and with many of the Appellate Body Secretariat staff. As a result, the WTO Director-General has worked to move the AB Secretariat staff to other Divisions within the WTO in light of the reduced 2020 Appellate Body budget, the reduced workload and now the termination (at least temporarily) of any work by the Appellate Body.

For example, the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration meeting of March 9, 2020 had an appearance by Director-General Azevedo. The write-up on the meeting noted that “Turning to the Appellate Body Secretariat, the Director-General observed that until a political agreement emerges as to the format of the future appeals process, 23 staff members of the Appellate Body Secretariat have been temporarily re-assigned to other Divisions.” Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration, Report of meeting held on 9 March 2020, WT/BFA/185/Rev. 1 at para. 1.10.

Last Friday, June 26, 2020, Director-General Azevedo wrote to all the WTO membership to alert them to the creation of a new Division on July 1 “responsible for Knowledge and Information Management, Academic Outreach and the WTO Chair’s Programme”. The new Division will be headed by Mr. Werner Zdouc who was being reassigned. Mr. Zdouc has since 2006 served as the director of the Appellate Body Secretariat. It is assumed that by July 1st all Appellate Body Secretariat staff have either left the WTO or been reassigned. The June 26 letter is embedded below.

DG-letter-to-PRs-re-New-Division-Zdouc-June-2020

Press accounts from 2019 suggested that Mr. Zdouc was viewed as contributing to the problems at the Appellate Body long complained of by the United States and some others, particularly on the issue of precedent (i.e., whether AB reports were precedential) and on the practical problem of whether the Appellate Body would correct elements of decisions that were viewed as wrongly decided by Members. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Appellate Body’s future could depend on whether its director keeps his job, December 8, 2019.

Movement of WTO Appellate Body Secretariat staff doesn’t end the conflict on second-tier review

While there has been hope amongst some that WTO Members would continue to pursue in 2020 a path to reform that would permit the reactivating of the Appellate Body, that hope seems to have no short-term prospect for fulfillment.

Parties remain locked in their existing positions. With U.S. elections scheduled for November, some WTO Members may be deciding that they will simply await the outcome of the election before further engaging. Ambassador Lighthizer said at the recent U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means hearing on the President’s 2020 trade agenda that it would be ok if the Appellate Body never comes back.

Without an operational Appellate Body, WTO Members have various options including arbitration under DSU Article 25. However, there are ongoing skirmishes at the WTO pertaining to the coverage of costs by the WTO of arbitration costs for Members pursuing arbitration through the interim arbitration agreement to which the EU, Canada, China and many other countries are signatories. See JOB/DSB/1/Add. 12, 13 and 14.

During the 2020 budget discussions held at the end of 2019, the U.S. had pushed for a clarification for how arbitrators would be paid (same as panelists which was significantly lower than AB member daily charges; no monthly retainer) and for a reduction in the Appellate Body budget in light of the lack of sufficient AB members. See, e.g., Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration, Report of the Meeting Held on 12 and 27 November and 5 December 2019, WT/BFA/183 (6 December 2019).

Recent press accounts have reported that there continue to be challenges by the United States to the interim arbitration agreement on various fronts including payment from the WTO budget. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, June 12, 2020, Shea: U.S. opposes use of WTO budget for interim appellate plan (article includes a link to the June 5 letter from Amb. Shea to DG Azevedo). As stated in Amb. Shea’s June 5th letter to DG Azevedo, the U.S. objects to the interim arbitration agreement that the EU, China and others are party to because it “exacerbates some of the worst aspects of the Appellate Body’s practices.” The U.S. also objected “to the use of WTO budget funds for a process that is clearly far more than a simple Article 25 arbitration.” The letter is embedded below.

June-5-2020-letter-from-Amb.-Shea-to-DG-Azevedo

Conclusion

With a reduced 2020 budget for the Appellate Body and with the conclusion of disputes on which Appellate Body reports will be prepared until such time as the Appellate Body is reactivated, the WTO has reassigned Appellate Body Secretariat staff to other divisions and has started a new division which will be headed by the former Director of the Appellate Body Secretariat.

Unfortunately, shifting personnel to different divisions does nothing to eliminate the deep divisions on how to proceed with dispute settlement after panel reports. Moreover, there is no apparent willingness to move reform of the dispute settlement system forward at the present time. Efforts by the EU and others to create an interim process that mirror many of the problems found in the Appellate Body practices have simply moved the deep divisions among Members over the Appellate Body into what is permissible under DSU Art. 25. So we will have a crisis in the dispute settlement area at least until 2021 and probably beyond.

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.