New Zealand

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.

Export restraints vs. trade liberalization during a global pandemic — the reality so far with COVID-19

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases (COVID-19) as of March 26, 2020 was approaching 500,000 globally, with the rate of increase in cases continuing to surge in a number of important countries or regions (e.g., Europe and the United States) with the locations facing the greatest strains shifting over time.

In an era of global supply chains, few countries are self-sufficient in all medical supplies and equipment needed to address a pandemic. Capacity constraints can occur in a variety of ways, including from overall demand exceeding the supply (production and inventories), from an inability or unwillingness to manage supplies on a national or global basis in an efficient and time responsive manner, by the reduction of production of components in one or more countries reducing the ability of downstream producers to complete products, by restrictions on modes of transport to move goods internationally or nationally, from the lack of availability of sufficient medical personnel or physical facilities to handle the increased work load and lack of facilities.

The reality of exponential growth of COVID-19 cases over weeks within a given country or region can overwhelm the ability of the local health care system to handle the skyrocketing demand. When that happens, it is a nightmare for all involved as patients can’t be handled properly or at all in some instances, death rates will increase, and health care providers and others are put at risk from a lack of adequate supplies and protective gear. Not surprisingly, shortages of supplies and equipment have been identified in a number of countries over the last three months where the growth in cases has been large. While it is understandable for national governments to seek to safeguard supplies of medical goods and equipment to care for their citizens, studies over time have shown that such inward looking actions can be short sighted, reduce the global ability to handle the crisis, increase the number of deaths and prevent the level of private sector response that open markets would support.

As we approach the end of March, the global community receives mixed grades on their efforts to work jointly and to avoid beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Many countries have imposed one or more restraints on exports of medical supplies and equipment with the number growing rapidly as the spread of COVID-19 outside of China has escalated particularly in March. Indeed, when one or more countries impose export restraints, it often creates a domino effect as countries who may depend in part on supplies from one or more of those countries, decides to impose restraints as well to limit shortages in country.

At the same time, the G-7, G-20 and others have issued statements or other documents indicating their political desire to minimize export restraints and keep trade moving. The WTO is collecting information from Members on actions that have been taken in response to COVID-19 to improve transparency and to enable WTO Members to identify actions where self-restraint or roll back would be useful. And some countries have engaged in unilateral tariff reductions on critical medical supplies and equipment.

Imposition of Export Restraints

The World Customs Organization has developed a list of countries that have imposed some form of export restraint in 2020 on critical medical supplies. In reviewing the WCO website today, the following countries were listed: Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, European Union, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam. Today’s listing is copied below.

List-of-Countries-having-adopted-temporary-export-control-measures-Worl.._

While China is not listed on the WCO webpage, it is understood that they have had some restrictions in fact at least during the January-February period of rapid spread of COVID-19 in China.

While it is surprising to see the European Union on the list, the Official Journal notice of the action indicates that the action is both temprary (six weeks – will end around the end of April) and flows in part from the fact that sources of product used by the EU had been restricting exports. The March 15, 2020 Official Journal notice is attached below.

EC-Implementing-Regulation-EU-2020-402-of-14-March-2020-making-the-exportation-of-certain-products-subject-to-the-production-of-an-export-authorisation

Professor Simon Evenett, in a March 19, 2020 posting on VOX, “Sickening thy neighbor: Export restraints on medical supplies during a pandemic,” https://voxeu.org/article/export-restraints-medical-supplies-during-pandemic, reviews the challenges posed and provides examples of European countries preventing exports to neighbors — Germany preventing a shipment of masks to Switzerland and France preventing a shipment to the U.K.

In a webinar today hosted by the Washington International Trade Association and the Asia Society Policy Institute entitled “COVID-19 and Trade – A WTO Agenda,” Prof. Evenett reviewed his analysis and noted that the rate of increase for export restraints was growing with 48 of 63 actions occurring in March and 8 of those occurring in the last forty-eight hours. A total of 57 countries are apparently involved in one or more restraints. And restraints have started to expand from medical supplies and equipment to food with four countries mentioned by Prof. Evenett – Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam.

Efforts to keep markets open and liberalize critical medical supplies

Some countries have reduced tariffs on critical medical goods during the pandemic and some countries have also implemented green lane approaches for customs clearance on medical supplies and goods. Such actions are clearly permissible under the WTO, can be undertaken unilaterally and obviously reduce the cost of medical supplies and speed up the delivery of goods that enter from offshore. So it is surprising that more countries don’t help themselves by reducing tariffs temporarily (or permanently) on critical medical supplies and equipment during a pandemic.

Papers generated by others show that there are a large number of countries that apply customs duties on medical supplies, equipment and soaps and disinfectants. See, e.g., Jennifer Hillman, Six Proactive Steps in a Smart Trade Approach to Fighting COVID-19 (graphic from paper reproduced below), https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/six-proactive-steps-smart-trade-approach-fighting-covid-19

Groups of countries have staked out positions of agreeing to work together to handle the pandemic and to keep trade open. For example, the G20 countries had a virtual emergency meeting today to explore the growing pandemic. Their joint statement can be found here and is embedded below, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.pdf.

dgra_26mar20_e

There is one section of the joint statement that specifically addresses international trade disruptions during the pandemic. That language is repeated below:

“Addressing International Trade Disruptions

“Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, critical agricultural products, and other goods and services across borders, and work to resolve disruptions to the global supply chains, to support the health and well-being of all people.

“We commit to continue working together to facilitate international trade and coordinate responses in ways that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. Emergency measures aimed at protecting health will be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. We task our Trade Ministers to assess the impact of the pandemic on trade.

“We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”

The WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo participated in the virtual meeting with the G20 leaders and expressed strong support for the commitment of the G20 to working on the trade related aspects of the pandemic. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.htm.

Separately, New Zealand and Singapore on March 21st issued a Joint Ministerial Statement which stated in part,

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious global crisis.

“As part of our collective response to combat the virus, Singapore and New Zealand are committed to maintaining open and connected supply chains. We will also work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities,”

https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2020/03/21/new-zealand-works-closely-with-singapore-to-maintain-key-supply.

The Joint Ministerial Statement was expanded to seven countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore), on March 25th and is reportedly open to additional countries joining. See https://www.mti.gov.sg/-/media/MTI/Newsroom/Press-Releases/2020/03/updated-joint-ministerial-statement-25-mar.pdf

Conclusion

When a pandemic strikes, many countries have trouble maintaining open trade policies on critical materials in short supply and/or in working collaboratively to address important supply chain challenges or in taking unilateral actions to make critical supplies available more efficiently and at lower costs.

The current global response to COVID-19 presents the challenges one would expect to see – many countries imposing temporary restrictions on exports — while positive actions in the trade arena are more limited to date with some hopeful signs of a potential effort to act collectively going forward.

Time will tell whether governments handling of the trade dimension of the pandemic contributes to the equitable solution of the pandemic or exacerbates the challenges and harm happening to countries around the world.

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.

Fisheries Subsidies – Will the WTO Members Reach Agreement Before June 2020?

When WTO Members launched the Doha Development Agenda in November 2001, one of the topics to be explored was fisheries subsidies as outlined as part of the Rules paragraph 28:

“In the context of these negotiations, participants shall also aim to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account
the importance of this sector to developing countries.” Ministerial Declaration, para. 28, WT/MIN(01)/Dec/1.

Fisheries subsidies were also mentioned in paragraph 31 of the Declaration dealing with topics within trade and environment that would be explored.

More than 18 years later, WTO members are pushing to reach agreement on new disciplines on fisheries subsidies by the time of the 12th Ministerial Conference to be held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan in early June 2020.

The push is related to the 2020 deadline included in the September 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDG”) 14.6: “by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.” The term “IUU” refers to “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing.

At the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference, WTO members adopted a decision to complete fisheries subsidies negotiations by the next Ministerial Conference. See WT/MIN(17)/64; WT/L/1031:

“FISHERIES SUBSIDIES

“MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 13 DECEMBER 2017

“The Ministerial Conference

Decides as follows:

“1. Building on the progress made since the 10th Ministerial Conference as reflected in documents TN/RL/W/274/Rev.2, RD/TN/RL/29/Rev.3, Members agree to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations, with a view to adopting, by the Ministerial Conference in 2019, an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU-fishing recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country Members and least developed country Members should be an integral part of these negotiations.

“2. Members re-commit to implementation of existing notification obligations under Article 25.3 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures thus strengthening transparency with respect to fisheries subsidies.”

Why the interest in fisheries subsidies?

For decades, the world has been experiencing overfishing of various species of fish in different parts of the world. The U.N.Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that between 1974 and 2015 fish stocks that are not within biologically sustainable levels increased from 10% in 1974 to 33.1% in 2015. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 (“2018 Report) at 6. This decline has occurred despite efforts made by various countries to regulate capture/production.

“Despite the continuous increase in the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels, progress has been made in some regions. For example, the proportion of stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels increased from 53 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2016 in the United States of America, and from 27 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2015 in Australia.” 2018 Report at 6.

Because of, inter alia, the importance of the fishing industry to many countries and fish to the diets of many peoples, there has been concern for many years with actions needed by nations to ensure the sustainability of fish captures.

The FAO’s 2018 Report provides a great deal of information on the importance of fish to developing and least developed countries and the various actions being taken to address meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) pertaining to fish and the oceans.

The WTO’s negotiations on fisheries subsidies are just one part of the much larger group of SDGs being pursued by countries as part of the UN targets and only deals with ocean/sea wild caught fish, not with aquaculture and not with inland caught fish. The FAO’s 2018 Report is attached below.

2018-FAO-the-state-of-world-fisheries-and-aquaculture

As Table 1 in the 2018 Report shows, there has been a rapid growth in aquaculture so that by 2016, there was greater volume from aquaculture than there was from “marine caught”. Specifically, in 2016 aquaculture accounted fro 80.0 million metric tons (46.8%) of the total production/ capture, marine capture was 79.3 million metric tons (46.4%) and inland capture was 11.6 million metric tons (6.8%) – for a total of 170.9 million metric tons. Data do not include information on aquatic mammals, crocodiles, alligators, caimans, seaweeds and other aquatic plants. 2018 Report, Table 1, page 4.

While aquaculture has grown, marine capture has declined or stagnated over time and with growing levels of overfishing, longer term decline will occur in this sector absent concerted steps to manage the volume pursued at sea. Overfishing is believed due to overbuilding of fishing fleets and the level of fishing that contravenes national laws, is unrecorded and/or unregulated. Thus, the efforts within the WTO to impose disciplines on subsidies benefiting IUU fishing and/or contributing to overfishing are an important element in achieving catch rates that are sustainable versus unsustainable and declining.

Importance of marine fishing to developed, developing and least developed countries

The FAO gathers information on the amount of marine capture (as well as inland capture and aquaculture) annually. The latest data available from FAO are for 2017. FAO, Fishery and Aquaculture Statistical Yearbook 2017, http://www.fao.org/fishery/static/Yearbook/YB2017_USBcard/index.htm. The average marine caught volumes for the years 2015-2017 from the FAO data base were summarized for WTO Members in a July 11, 2019 submission to the WTO rules negotiations addressing fisheries subsidies. The submission was made by Argentina, Australia, the United States and Uruguay. Top marine caught Members are presented below in millions of metric tons and percent of world production:

CountryProduction (mm tonnes)% of World Production
China13.8 17.30%
Indonesia 6.2 7.76%
European Union 5.3 6.68%
United States 5.0 6.25%
Russian Federation 4.4 5.53%
Peru 4.2 5.31%
India 4.6 4.57%
Japan 3.2 4.06%
Vietnam 3.0 3.71%
Norway 2.2 2.80%
Chile 1.7 2.18%
Malaysia 1.5 1.90%
Republic of Korea 1.4 1.82%
Morocco 1.4 1.73%
Mexico 1.4 1.73%
Thailand 1,3 1.65%
Myanmar 1.2 1.49%
Iceland 1.2 1.48%
Chinese Taipei 0.8 1.04%
Canada 0.8 1.03%
Argentina 0.8 0.98%
Ecuador 0.7 0.84%
Bangladesh 0.6 0.78%
Mauritania 0.6 0.74%
South Africa 0.6 0.71%
Subtotal 68.8 86.36%
All Other 10.9 13.64%
World Total 79.7 100.00%

TN/RL/GEN/197/Rev.2, pages 4-7, Annex I (11 July 2019). Data for the EU and the US contain data from various islands referenced on page 4 in fotnotes a and b. The Annex lists 136 of the 164 WTO members and their production/volumes although no data are available for 28 WTO members (some of which are landlocked and hence may have no marine caught fish). The full listing is attached below.

TNRLGEN197R2

As reviewed in the 2018 Report (page 2), fish make up an increasing share of animal protein for humans, with 100% of the increase being accounted for by expanding aquaculture:

“The expansion in consumption has been driven not only by increased production, but also by other factors, including reduced wastage. In 2015, fish accounted for about 17 percent of animal protein consumed by the
global population. Moreover, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein. Despite their relatively low levels of fish consumption, people in developing countries have a higher share of fish protein in their diets than those in developed countries. The highest per capita fish consumption, over 50 kg, is found in several small island developing States (SIDS), particularly in Oceania, while the lowest levels, just above 2 kg, are in Central Asia and some landlocked countries.”

Fishing/fisheries are an important source of employment for many countries, with the vast majority of such employment being in countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Specifically in 2016 worldwide fisheries employment was estimated at 40.338 million people (no breakout between marine and inland caught). Of this number, 31.990 million were in Asia ((79.3%), 5.367 million were in Africa (13.3%) and 2.085 million were in Latin America and the Caribbean (5.2%) , with just 896,000 jobs in North America, Europe and Oceania. Several important individual countries are shown in the 2018 Report — China with 14.5 million jobs in fisheries in 2016 (36% of global) and Indonesia with 2.7 million folks employed in fisheries (6.7% of global employment in the sector). 2018 Report at 32-33. Much of the employment in fisheries around the world is from family run operations, often subsistence in nature, and mainly using small boats (less than 12 meters in length and a large portion of which are not motorized).

The 2018 Report indicates that in 2016 the number of fishing vessels in the world were 4.6 million, 2.8 million of which were motorized. Of the 4.6 million vessels, 75.4% were in Asia, 14.0% in Africa, 6.4% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2.1% in Europe, 1.8% in North America and 0.3% in Oceania. 100% of Europe’s vessels were motorized, more than 90% of those in North America, but only some 25% in Africa. See pages 36-38 of the 2018 Report.

WTO Efforts at Increasing Disciplines on Marine Fisheries Subsidies

Negotiations at the WTO have had periods of greater activity since 2001 than in other periods. 2005-2011 was a particularly active period according to the WTO webpage, with an uptick in efforts beginning in late 2016 and continuing to the present time. See https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/rulesneg_e/fish_e/fish_intro.htm.

The negotiations have been complicated by many issues that are not typical for trade negotiations. Here are a few of the perceived problem issues:

(a) problem being addressed relates to depletion of scarce global resources through overfishing flowing from subsidies that create excess capacity;

(b) production occurs not only in national waters but in the open seas and through contracts to capture fish in third countries’ waters;

(c) concerns about effect of negotiations on outstanding territorial disputes/claims;

(d) the challenge of disciplining subsidies provided by one country on fishing vessels which are flagged in a different country;

(e) the lack of meaningful data from many developing and least developed countries which complicates understanding the level of marine capture;

(f) for many developing and least developed countries, the large part of fishing fleets which are subsistence or artisanal in nature;

(g) the large portion of global capture which is developing and least developed country in origin vs. desire for special and differential treatment for such countries;

(h) challenge of whether traditional S&D provisions (exclusion from disciplines, lesser reductions, longer implementation periods) are actually harmful to developing and least developed countries where continued erosion of marine catch from overfishing will actually hurt the fishermen and fisherwomen of the countries receiving S&D consideration;

(i) whether dispute settlement as applicable to other WTO agreements (whether SCMA or other) will serve the underlying objectives of any negotiated agreement or needs to be modified to reflect the unique objectives of the agreement.

On the question of level of subsidization, there are the usual questions of what, if any, subsidies will be allowed as not causing concerns re growing capacity or overfishing and whether there is some level of acceptable subsidies even if adding to capacity.

While the set of public documents from the negotiations are reasonable through much of 2018, the resort to Room Documents (which are not made public) and other classification of documents, means that much of the current drafts of sections of a possible agreement are not publicly available. For example, there were ten documents identified as made available to WTO Members for the May 8, 2019 Informal Open-ended Negotiating Group on Rules (Fisheries Subsidies). Seven of the ten documents are not available to the public as “Room Documents” even if the documents were generated weeks or months before the meeting. See, e.g., RD/TN/RL/72 (17/12/2018); RD/TN/RL/81 (21/03/2019); RD/TN/RL/77/Rev.1 (21/03/2019); RD/TN/RL/82 (08/04/2019); RD/TN/RL/79/Rev.1 (18/04/2019); RD/TN/RL/83 (02/05/2019); RD/TN/RL/84 (06/05/2019).

Similarly, WTO Members have done a relatively poor job of notifying the subsidies provided to marine fisheries. Even with improvements in notifications in 2019, as late as November 2019, nine of the 26 largest providers of fisheries subsidies had not provided notifications and some who had done so in 2019 submitted the first notifications of such programs in 20 years. Members welcome progress in notification of fisheries subsidies, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/scm_19nov19_e.htm.

There is a draft document from the Chair of the negotiations from 14 November 2018, TN/RL/W/274/Rev.6 which lays out the Chair’s understanding of negotiations as of that date. The document is attached below and is heavily bracketed meaning that at the time of the draft there was not agreement on the bracketed text or options were shown.

TNRLW274R6

Some public submissions show that countries or groups of countries are still putting forward approaches on topics of importance. For example there are 2019 submissions on the following topics: fishing vessels not flying the member’s flag (e.g., TN/RL/GEN/201/Rev.1 (proposed prohibiting subsidies to such vessels)(Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and Uruguay), on a cap-based approach to addressing certain fisheries subsidies [(TN/RL/GEN/197/Rev.2) and TN/RL/GEN/203)(Argentina, Australia, the United States, and Uruguay) vs. different approach put forward by China (TN/RL/199)], on whether different dispute settlement principles need to be considered (TN/RL/GEN/198, Canadian discussion paper), the breadth of special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (TN/RL/200, submission from India).

Interestingly, a submission from New Zealand and Iceland in 2018 warned other WTO members that a focus on fishing in international waters vs. marine catch in national waters would result in any agreement addressing very little of the marine catch volume as would other overly narrow scope approaches:

‘6.SDG Target 14.6 is clear that subsidies that contribute to both overcapacity and overfishing must be prohibited. An outcome which excluded the most harmful types of subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing would therefore not satisfy SDG Target 14.6. An outcome that addressed capacity or overfishing in just a hortatory way or in a manner that applied disciplines only to a small subset of subsidies or the world’s fishing fleet would similarly fail to meet the requirements of SDG Target 14.6.

“7. For example, the current emphasis on subsidies to fishing beyond national jurisdiction is warranted given the weaker governance and resource and development impacts of such fishing. This however must not be at the exclusion of waters under national jurisdiction where the vast majority of global catch – 88% – is taken.1 Similarly, the emphasis on overfished stocks should not equate to an exception for other stocks as doing so would exclude nearly 70% of the world’s fisheries.2 Taken together, these two approaches alone would result in barely 8% of the world’s fisheries being subject to subsidy prohibitions.3
“2 FAO. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016.
“3 Two thirds of fish stocks managed by RFMOs are overfished or depleted: Cullis-Suzuki, S. & Pauly, D. (2010). Failing the high seas: a global evaluation of regional fisheries management organization. Marine Policy 34: 1036–1042.”

Advancing Fisheries Subsidies Prohibitions on Subsidies Contributing to Overcapacity and Overfishing, TN/RL/W/275 at 2 (8 May 2018)(New Zealand and Iceland).

Will WTO Members Deliver Meaningful Fisheries Subsidies Reform

The fact that the negotiations have taken more tan 18 years and that major countries appear to remain widely apart on many key issues suggests that the road to success will be challenging.

For example, India’s proposal for S&D would result in large amounts of fisheries subsidies not being addressed by the agreement (whatever the scope of subsidies addressed) rendering any agreement of minimal assistance in fact if adopted following that approach.

There are significant differences in approaches to limiting subsidies as can be seen in the different cap approaches presented by China and a group of other countries (Argentina, Australia, the United States and Uruguay).

Similarly, there is a disconnect between the problems being addressed (overcapacity and overfishing) and the traditional role of S&D to eliminate, reduce and/or delay obligations. For the fisheries subsidies negotiations to achieve a meaningful result, the WTO Members need to revisit what the role of special and differential needs to be to achieve better marine catch for developing and least developed countries. The focus needs to be on helping LDCs and developing countries develop accurate data on marine catch, developing the capacity to participate in regional management programs, finding assistance to fishermen and fisherwomen affected by depleted marine catches to survive/choose alternative work until such time as sustainable levels of wild caught fish are again available. But all countries need to contribute to limiting fisheries subsidies where excess capacity or overfishing are the likely result.

And there is the U.S. position that S&D will only be approved in any new agreement if it is limited to those countries with an actual need (i.e., certain countries would not take such benefits). Considering the role of major countries like China and India in marine catch, one can expect challenges in having those countries (and possibly others) agree to forego S&D provisions.

Net/net – as most Members seem to be focused on the wrong questions, there is a reasonable probability that the Kazakhstan Ministerial will not see a meaningful set of disciplines adopted on fisheries subsidies to address the challenges to marine catch from overcapacity and overfishing.

Let’s hope that the above forecast proves wrong.