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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.

Food security and COVID-19 — how World Trade Organization Members could fill a pressing need

In 2020 as the world has been dealing with the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Trade Organization has focused attention on keeping markets open by urging Members to provide notifications of trade restrictive and trade liberalizing measures taken not just on medical goods but also on agricultural products. The G20 countries and various groups of WTO Members have made commitments to impose restrictions only under limited circumstances and only temporarily, consistent with WTO obligations. Some Members have urged countries to agree not to impose export restraints on agricultural goods to limit worsening challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. On agricultural export restrictions, a number of countries have applied some restrictions despite information that global food supplies are sufficient which should make restrictions unnecessary. The attention paid to the issue by the WTO and its Members have limited the number of countries engaged in agricultural export restraints which is a positive development.

With the steps many countries have taken to limit the spread of the COVID-19, there has been enormous economic pain incurred by most countires, with tens of millions of people in countries temporarily unemployed, schools closed, food distribution disrupted with the closure of restaurants which constitute a large part of food shipped from processing plants and farms.

The UN, World Bank and others have projected huge increases in the number of people pushed into extreme poverty because of the effects flowing from the pandemic. Extreme poverty brings with it food security issues as people suffering extreme poverty don’t have the means to procure basic food needs.

The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) has long been involved in helping address food security needs around the world. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the WFP is mobilizing to provide assistance to some 138 million people in 83 countries. With most countries occupied with dealing with the needs of their own populations, countries and private citizens have been slow to respond to the humanitarian challenges facing so many around the world. The WFP has appealed for US$4.9 billion to let them perform their stepped up function during COVID-19 through the end of 2020. As of August 6, they had received only 9 percent of what they need, $US440 million.

The WFP during the pandemic has been involved in facilitating services by many NGOs and international organizations. For example, “Over 16,500 health and humanitarian personnel from 288 organizations have now been transported to destinations throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States countries by WFP’s air passenger service since its launch on 1 May. 53 destinations are now being served, with approximately 2,500 passengers using WFP’s service per week.” WFP, COVID-19, Level 3 Emergency, External Situation Report #12 (6 August 2020)(emphasis in original). The latest situation report is embedded below and reviews the wide array of services provided as well a review of some of the countries with acute needs. It also provides a link to contribute to the WFP.

WFP-0000118265

The External Situation Report indicates that there are 27 countries (based on an FAO-WFP hotspot analysis) which “are at risk of significant food security deterioration in the next six months”. (page 2). Countries at risk are Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Mali, the Niger, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and Bangladesh (total is 31, though Peru, Ecuador, Colombia appear to be at a lower level of risk based on coloration used on page 2). FAO – WFP early warning analsyis of acute food insecurity hotspots, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000117706/download/.

Where is the food aid?

For many countries, agricultural production has remained reasonably strong but large volumes of agricultural products have been destroyed based on lack of domestic markets, typically flowing from the collapse of the restaurant trade and the challenges in redirecting product, packaging and labeling into retail channels. See, e.g., New York Times, April 11, 2020, Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html.

At the same time, there have been huge increases in internal-country demand for help from food banks in some countries. See, e.g., for the United States: Feeding America, The first months of the food bank response to COVID, by the numbers, https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/first-months-food-bank-response-covid-numbers.

It would seem that coordinated action by major agricultural goods producers in the WTO with the WFP and other groups should be able to provide large quantities of agricultural goods to those in need globally in the remaining months of 2020, goods which might otherwise simply be destroyed.

Similarly, while all countries are financially stretched during the pandemic, helping WFP obtain the needed financial resources to provide a coordinated pledging event should be of interest to WTO Members and many of the multilateral organizations working on COVID responses, as well as the business community and the general public.

While the WTO has grappled with limiting/eliminating export subsidies for agricultural goods, the WTO has always recognized the need to maintain the flow of humanitarian need particularly in agricultural goods. Consider these paragraphs from the 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference Decision on Export Competition (WT/MIN(15)45, WT/L/980 (21 Dec. 2015) at 6-7):

“International Food Aid

“22. Members reaffirm their commitment to maintain an adequate level of international food aid, to take account of the interests of food aid recipients and to ensure that the disciplines contained hereafter do not unintentionally impede the delivery of food aid provided to deal with emergency situations. To meet the objective of preventing or minimizing commercial displacement, Members shall ensure that international food aid
is provided in full conformity with the disciplines specified in paragraphs 23 to 32, thereby contributing to the objective of preventing commercial displacement.

“23. Members shall ensure that all international food aid is:

“a. needs-driven;

“b. in fully grant form;

“c. not tied directly or indirectly to commercial exports of agricultural products or other goods and services;

“d. not linked to the market development objectives of donor Members;
and that

“e. agricultural products provided as international food aid shall not be re-exported in any form, except where the agricultural products were not permitted entry into the recipient country, the agricultural products were determined inappropriate or no longer needed for the purpose for which they were received in the recipient country, or re-exportation is necessary for logistical reasons to expedite the provision of food aid for another country in an emergency situation. Any reexportation in accordance with this subparagraph shall be conducted in a manner that does not unduly impact established, functioning commercial markets of agricultural commodities in the countries to which the food aid is re-exported.

“24. The provision of food aid shall take into account local market conditions of the same or substitute products. Members shall refrain from providing in-kind international food aid in situations where this would be reasonably foreseen to cause an adverse effect on local13 or regional production of the same or substitute products. In addition, Members shall ensure that international food aid does not unduly impact established, functioning commercial markets of agricultural commodities.

“25. Where Members provide exclusively cash-based food aid, they are encouraged to continue to do so. Other Members are encouraged to provide cash-based or in-kind international food aid in emergency situations, protracted crises (as defined by the FAO14), or non-emergency development/capacity building food assistance environments where recipient countries or recognized international humanitarian/food entities, such as the United Nations, have requested food assistance.

“26. Members are also encouraged to seek to increasingly procure international food aid from local or regional sources to the extent possible, provided that the availability and prices of basic foodstuffs in these markets are not unduly compromised.

“27. Members shall monetize international food aid only where there is a demonstrable need for monetization for the purpose of transport and delivery of the food assistance, or the monetization of international food aid is used to redress short and/or long term food deficit requirements or insufficient agricultural production situations which give rise to chronic hunger and malnutrition in least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.15

“28. Local or regional market analysis shall be completed before monetization occurs for all monetized international food aid, including consideration of the recipient country’s nutritional needs, local United Nations Agencies’ market data and normal import and consumption levels of the commodity to be monetized, and consistent with Food Assistance Convention reporting. Independent third party commercial or non-profit
entities will be employed to monetize in-kind international food aid to ensure open market competition for the sale of in-kind international food aid.

“29. In employing these independent third party commercial or non-profit entities for the purposes of the preceding paragraph, Members shall ensure that such entities minimize or eliminate disruptions to the local or regional markets, which may include impacts on production, when international food aid is monetized. They shall ensure that the sale of commodities for food assistance purposes is conducted in a transparent, competitive and open process and through a public tender.16

“30. Members commit to allowing maximum flexibility to provide for all types of international food aid in order to maintain needed levels while making efforts to move toward more untied cash-based international food aid in accordance with the Food Assistance Convention.

“31. Members recognize the role of government in decision-making on international food aid in their jurisdictions. Members recognize that the government of a recipient country of international food aid can opt out of the usage of monetized international food aid.

“32. Members agree to review the provisions on international food aid contained in the preceding paragraphs within the regular Committee on Agriculture monitoring of the implementation of the Marrakesh Ministerial Decision of April 1994 on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.

“13 The term ‘local’ may be understood to mean at the national or subnational level.

“14 FAO defines protracted crises as follows: ‘Protracted crises refer to situations in which a significant portion of a population is facing a heightened risk of death, disease, and breakdown of their livelihoods.’

“15 Belize, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guyana, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and Suriname shall also have access to this provision.

“16 In the instance where it is not feasible to complete a sale through a public tender, a negotiated sale can be used.”

It is believed that the current WTO provisions on food aid should not pose hurdles to countries providing in kind aid where there are needed food products that can be exported during the pandemic. If that is not the case, then the WTO Members should agree to a temporary waiver of relevant restrictions to permit food aid during the pandemic.

There has been much discussion within the G20, WTO, WHO and other groups that collective action on the medical front is critical to see that medical goods, vaccines, are therapeutics are available equitably and at affordable prices. What one hasn’t seen is the same focus on ensuring that the world’ populations have access to food equitably and at affordable prices. During the pandemic, WTO Members have the opportunity to work together to see that food is not wasted and that food aid is supplemented to the extent possible to alleviate the unique challenges to food security presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.