Venezuela

U.S. blocks inclusion of Venezuelan request for panel on U.S. sanctions at WTO, Dispute Settlement Body meeting of March 26, 2021 postponed

The monthly regular meeting of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body was scheduled for March 26, 2021. The proposed agenda was circulated earlier and contained as item 4, “United States – Measures Relating to Trade in Goods and Services, A. Request for the Establishment of a Panel by Venezuela (WT/DS54/2/Rev.1)”. See Dispute Settlement Body, 26 March 2021, Proposed Agenda, WT/DSB/W/679 (24 March 2021). For background, the Venezuelan request for a panel is embedded below.

WTDS574-2R1

The United States objected to the inclusion of agenda item 4. USTR released a short statement on March 26. “The United States will reject any effort by Maduro to misuse the WTO to attack U.S. sanctions aimed at restoring human rights and democracy to Venezuela. The United States exercised its rights as a WTO Member to object to this illegitimate panel request because representatives of the Maduro regime do not speak on behalf of the Venezuelan people.” See USTR, Statement from USTR Spokesperson Adam Hodge on U.S. Action to Prevent Maduro Regime’s Attempt to Undermine U.S. Sanctions, March 26, 2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/march/statement-ustr-spokesperson-adam-hodge-us-action-prevent-maduro-regimes-attempt-undermine-us.

Venezuela did not agree to withdraw its request for a panel from the agenda with the result that Dispute Settlement Body meetings cannot proceed until there is a resolution. See Blomberg, U.S. Disrupts WTO Dispute Meeting Over Venezuela Sanctions Fight, March 26, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-26/u-s-disrupts-wto-dispute-meeting-over-venezuela-sanctions-fight (“The meeting ended prematurely after Venezuela refused Washington’s demand that the WTO remove Venezuela’s dispute request from the meeting agenda, according to the official attending the meeting. The impasse means that the WTO can’t hold any regular dispute settlement meetings unless and until the U.S. or Venezuela back down.”); Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, WTO: DSB meeting postponed over U.S. objection to Venezuela panel request, March 26, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/wto-dsb-meeting-postponed-over-us-objection-venezuela-panel-request; Reuters, U.S. blocks Venezuela bid to seek WTO review of sanctions, March 26, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-wto-usa-venezuela/u-s-blocks-venezuela-bid-to-seek-wto-review-of-sanctions-idUSKBN2BI1ZT (“Were the United States and other members to allow representatives of the illegitimate Maduro regime to exercise rights at the WTO on behalf of Venezuela, it would be tantamount to recognizing the Maduro regime itself,” the official said. “This would be contrary to the Biden-Harris administration’s firm policy supporting the people of Venezuela.”).

Background

The Maduro government in Venezuela is viewed as illegitimate by the United States and dozens of other governments based on the 2013 election. The U.S. has recognized Juan Guaido as the interim President and has imposed a series of sanctions on Venezuela and the Maduro government. While the sanctions were imposed during the Trump Administration, no changes have yet occurred in the Biden Administration. A 2020 write-up from the State Department describes the problems and justifications for the sanctions. See U.S. Department of State, U.S. Relations With Venezuela, Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, July 6, 2020, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-venezuela/. Much of the fact sheet is copied below.

U.S.-VENEZUELA RELATIONS

“The United States recognizes Interim President Juan Guaido and considers the Venezuelan National Assembly, which he currently leads, to be the only legitimate federal institution, according to the Venezuelan Constitution. Nearly sixty other countries have joined in this recognition.

“The United States works with Interim President Juan Guaido and his team on a number of areas of mutual concern, including humanitarian and migration issues, health issues, security, anti-narcotrafficking initiatives, and reestablishment of the rule of law. The United States proposed a Democratic Transition Framework in 2020 as a guide to help Venezuelan society achieve a peaceful, democratic transition. Venezuela’s previous presidents, the late Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) and Nicolas Maduro (2013-2019), defined themselves in large part through their opposition to the United States, regularly criticizing and sowing disinformation about the U.S. government, its policies, and its relations with Latin America. Maduro, who was not reelected via free and fair elections, clings to power through the use of force. His policies are marked by authoritarianism, intolerance for dissent, and violent and systematic repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms – including the use of torture, arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, and the holding of more than 400 prisoners of conscience. Maduro has been sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and in 2020 the Department of Justice charged him with offenses related to narco-terrorism and drug trafficking The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) posted a $15-million reward for information to bring him to justice. The Maduro regime’s irresponsible intervention in the economy has facilitated widespread corruption and stoked hyperinflation leading to negative economic growth and a humanitarian crisis, including food, energy, and water shortages, in a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

“U.S. Assistance to Venezuela

“Through its assistance to the legitimate Guaido Interim Government and democratic organizations within and outside Venezuela, the United States supports the protection of human rights, the promotion of civil society, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and transparency and accountability in the country. From Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 to 2019, the United States has committed approximately $58.6million in bilateral democracy assistance to Venezuela. Assistance to Venezuela is subject to a number of restrictions, including those under Section 706(1) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003 (P.L. 107-228) (the so-called Drug Majors restriction), the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and restrictions contained in the annual appropriations laws

“Since 2005, the President has determined annually that Venezuela, and more recently the illegitimate Maduro regime, has “failed demonstrably” to adhere to its drug control obligations under international counternarcotics agreements. The President has issued a national interest waiver to enable certain assistance programs vital to the national interests of the United States, such as human rights and civil society programs, to continue.

“Pursuant to Section 40A of the AECA, since 2006 the Department of State has determined annually that Venezuela was “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Under this provision, defense articles and services may not be sold or licensed for export to Venezuela during the relevant fiscal year.

“U.S. Assistance in Response to the Venezuela Regional Crisis

“The United States is answering Interim President Guaido’s call to help the people of Venezuela cope with severe food, water, energy, and medicine shortages. Since FY 2017, the United States has provided more than $856 million in assistance to support the response to the crisis inside Venezuela and the region, which includes $611 million in humanitarian assistance and $245 million in economic and development assistance. The United States is the single largest donor to the combat the crisis, and supports sixteen countries hosting Venezuelan refugees. USG-provided humanitarian assistance addresses critical life-saving needs, including food and nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene and health, and temporary shelter. Our development assistance is helping countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean meet longer term needs, such as education deficits, caused by the man-made regional crisis.

“Bilateral Economic Relations

“Before the United States suspended diplomatic operations in Venezuela, the United States was Venezuela’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade in goods between both countries reached $3.2 billion in 2019. U.S. goods exports to Venezuela totaled $1.2 billion in 2019. U.S. imports from Venezuela totaled $1.9 billion. U.S. exports to Venezuela have historically included petroleum and refined petroleum products, machinery, organic chemicals, and agricultural products. Crude oil dominated U.S. imports from Venezuela, which was one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the United States. In early 2019, imports of Venezuelan crude oil averaged roughly 500,000 barrels per day, but sanctions imposed by the United States have now cut this to zero. Previously, U.S. foreign direct investment in Venezuela was concentrated largely in the petroleum sector, but sanctions, coupled with the poor business environment, have significantly reduced these investment.

“Hyperinflation, state intervention in the economy including expropriations, macroeconomic distortions, physical insecurity, corruption, violations of labor rights, and a volatile regulatory framework make Venezuela an extremely challenging climate for U.S. and multinational companies. A complex foreign exchange system, capital controls, and the lack of dollars, coupled with increasing sanctions from the United States and other countries, have prevented firms from repatriating their earnings out of Venezuela and importing industrial inputs and finished goods into Venezuela. Lack of access to dollars, price controls, and rigid labor regulations have compelled many U.S. and multinational firms to reduce or shut down their Venezuelan operations.

“Since 2017, the United States has made over 300 Venezuelan-related designations, pursuant to various Executive Orders (E.O.), including under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. Designations include former President

“Maduro and those involved in public corruption and undermining democracy under E.O. 13692 (Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela) issued by the President in March 2015 and E.O. 13850 (Blocking Property of Additional Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela) issued by the President in November 2018, each as amended. Since 2017, the Department of Treasury has designated two individuals for involvement in narcotrafficking under the Kingpin Act, including former Vice President (and nominal Minister of Oil) Tareck El Aissami.

“Additionally, E.O. 13850, in conjunction with determinations made by the Secretary of the Treasury, authorizes sanctions against persons determined to be operating in the gold, oil, financial, and defense and security sectors of the Venezuelan economy and was the basis for the January 2019 designation of Venezuelan national oil company Petreoleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA). The Central Bank of Venezuela is also designated under E.O. 13850.

“On August 5, 2019, the President signed E.O. 13884 which blocks all property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States or that are within the possession or control of any United States person. In conjunction with E.O. 13884, Treasury also issued or , including those that authorize, among other things, transactions with Guaido and the National Assembly, activities for the official business of certain international organizations, and activities NGOs undertake to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in Venezuela.

“For additional information about the Venezuela sanctions program, please visit the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) website.

“On March 26, 2020, the Department of Justice charged former President Maduro and 14 other current and former Venezuelan officials, including his vice president for the economy, his Minister of Defense, and the Chief Supreme Court Justice with offenses related to narco-terrorism, corruption, and drug trafficking, and other criminal charges.

“Venezuela’s Membership in International Organizations

“Venezuela and the United States belong to a number of the same international organizations, including the United Nations, Organization of American States, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Monetary Fund, Interpol, World Bank, World Trade Organization and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

“Venezuela is a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and PetroCaribe. Venezuela is also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, , the G-15, the G-24, and the G-77. On August 5, 2017 Venezuela was indefinitely suspended from Southern Common Market (Mercosur).

“With the recognition of Juan Guaido as interim President by 57 countries, Venezuela’s participation or representation in some of these organizations has come under debate.

“On April 26, 2017, Maduro announced Venezuela would withdraw from the Organization of American States (OAS), a process that requires two years. This decision was reversed by Interim President Guaido and the National Assembly. On January 10, 2019, the OAS Permanent Council voted not to recognize the second term of former President Nicolas Maduro and on April 9, 2019 the OAS Permanent Council approved a resolution to accept interim President Guaido’s nominee Gustavo Tarre as Venezuela’s representative to the Permanent Council on April 9.

“The interim Guaido government is also an active member of the Lima Group, an important group of likeminded nations founded in 2017 to facilitate regional coordination in the pursuit of a democratic resolution to the Venezuela crisis.

“On March 15, 2019, the IDB approved a resolution recognizing Guaido’s representative, Ricardo Hausmann. The current representative is Alejandro Plaz.

“Bilateral Representation

“On March 12, 2019, the United States suspended embassy operations in Caracas. The United States maintains formal diplomatic relations with Venezuela and the Guaido interim government through its accredited Ambassador to the United States.

“On August 28, 2019, the Department of State announced the opening of the Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU). The VAU is the interim diplomatic office of the U.S. Government to Venezuela, located at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. It continues the U.S. mission to the legitimate Government of Venezuela and to the Venezuelan people.”

While the Biden Administration is reviewing its approach to Venezuela and some in the Democratic party have questioned the sanction program in terms of effectiveness, the sanctions remain in place as of March 28, 2021. See, e.g., White House Briefing Room, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Venezuela, March 08, 2021,https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/03/08/background-press-call-by-senior-administration-officials-on-venezuela/; PBS News Hour, Democrats pressure Biden to review U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, March 23, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/democrats-pressure-biden-to-review-u-s-sanctions-on-venezuela.

WTO history of the dispute

Venezuela requested consultations with the United States in late December 2018. See UNITED STATES – MEASURES RELATING TO TRADE IN GOODS AND SERVICES, REQUEST FOR CONSULTATIONS BY VENEZUELA (28 December 2018), WT/DS574/1, G/L/1289, S/L/420, 8 January 2019.

The United States refused the request for consultations. Venezuela requested a panel on 14 March 2019. See UNITED STATES – MEASURES RELATING TO TRADE IN GOODS AND SERVICES REQUEST FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A PANEL BY VENEZUELA, WT/DS574/2, 15 March 2019.

The request was included in the draft agenda for the DSB meeting of March 26, 2019. See Dispute Settlement Body, 26 March 2019, Proposed Agenda, WT/DSB/W/641, 22 March 2019 (agenda item 6, “UNITED STATES – MEASURES RELATING TO TRADE IN GOODS AND SERVICES, A. REQUEST FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A PANEL BY VENEZUELA (WT/DS574/2)”).

The U.S. objected to the inclusion of the Venezuelan request on the agenda. No DSB meeting was held on March 26, 2019. Venezuela agreed to withdraw its request, and the DSB meeting was rescheduled for April 26, 2019. See Dispute Settlement Body, 26 April 2019, Proposed Agenda, WT/DSB/W/643, 24 April 2019.

The minutes of the April 26, 2019 DSB meeting included the following statement ahead of the adoption of the agenda.

“Prior to the adoption of the Agenda, the representative of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela said that his delegation wished to make a short statement for the record to the effect that Venezuela was not asking to modify the proposed Agenda of the present meeting to request an inclusion of an item. However, Venezuela wished to reserve its right to do so at any future DSB meeting. Subsequently, Japan said that it wished to include on the proposed Agenda an item under “Other Business” regarding its communication contained in Job/DSB/3. The Agenda was adopted as amended. Following the adoption of the Agenda, the representative of Peru, speaking on behalf of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Paraguay said that the members of the Lima Group supported the functioning of the DSB at the present meeting.
However, their Governments wished to indicate that they did not recognize the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s regime nor that of its representatives. The representative of Venezuela said that the DSB was not the appropriate forum to discuss this matter. The representative of the Russian Federation said that her country supported the legitimate government of Nicolás Maduro and underlined that the WTO was not the appropriate international forum vested with the authority to discuss issues raised by the members of the Lima Group.” Dispute Settlement Body, 26 April 2019, MINUTES OF MEETING HELD, WT/DSB/M/428
25 June 2019, page 1.

March 26, 2021 DSB Meeting

Thus, based on the history of U.S. concerns with the Maduro government in Venezuela, it was hardly surprising that the United States would block inclusion of the request for a panel from the agenda this past Friday. Press accounts report that Peru, Brazil and Colombia supported the U.S. position and that the Russian Federation and Cuba supported Venezuela. See, e.g., Reuters, U.S. blocks Venezuela bid to seek WTO review of sanctions, March 26, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-wto-usa-venezuela/u-s-blocks-venezuela-bid-to-seek-wto-review-of-sanctions-idUSKBN2BI1ZT.

The EU made a statement at the truncated meeting which is copied below. See Permanent Mission of the European Union to the World Trade Organization (WTO), EU Statement at the Regular meeting of the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), 26 March 2021, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/world-trade-organization-wto/95717/eu-statement-regular-meeting-dispute-settlement-body-dsb-26-march-2021_en.

ADOPTION OF THE AGENDA:

“If the EU understands correctly, the US is not ready to accept this panel request by Venezuela as being valid, as it was submitted by a government which the US no longer recognises as the legitimate government representing Venezuela.

“In fact, in this case, the EU would have expected the US to rely on the security exceptions in Article XXI of the GATT and Article XIVbis of the GATS for justifying any departures from basic GATT and GATS provisions that may lie in the measures taken against Venezuela. 

Indeed, we note that the United States measures at issue appear justified by the security exceptions, so the challenge at issue cannot in any event succeed.

“All this being said, the EU has to react for systemic reasons and express its concern at the prospect of the DSB being prevented from holding its meeting on all items of today’s agenda simply because that agenda is not adopted. 

“There is a longstanding and widely recognised principle that DSB agendas cannot be blocked to the extent that they include items governed by negative consensus. This includes first panel requests (governed by consensus), since they are a necessary pre-condition to a second panel request. This principle is of utmost importance because the binding nature of WTO dispute settlement rests on it. 

“That said, the EU expects this meeting to be suspended now, as a result of the US objection to the agenda adoption. This should allow the Chairperson and the WTO Members most involved to consult in search of a solution. The EU hopes that these efforts will rapidly yield a solution, so that this meeting can continue and the DSB discharge the important duties with which it is entrusted.”

Conclusion

Friday’s events at the Dispute Settlement Body meeting were not surprising once the request for a panel had been filed by Venezuela. What is surprising is the Maduro government’s effort to re-raise a matter that had no possibility of being considered in light of the well understood U.S. position (a position agreed to by many WTO Members).

WTO Members have historically shown an inability to evaluate disputes they pursue from the vantage point of whether the result desired is at all politically possible for the Member whose action is being challenged. Yet pursuing disputes that cannot be resolved through the dispute settlement system is a disservice to the WTO and to the proper functioning of the Dispute Settlement Body. The Maduro government dispute with the United States first and foremost is a question of the legitimacy of the Maduro government and its refusal to transfer power to the interim President. No WTO dispute will help resolve the underlying dispute. Besides the question raised by the United States (blocking requests from entities which are not the true representatives of the people), getting rid of the request properly reflects the political realities of the underlying dispute.

Forced labor and child labor — a continued major distortion in international trade for some products

In recent years, the United States has paid more attention to the trade distortions flowing from forced labor and child labor in other countries, particularly in China. While there has been significant progress in the last twenty years in reducing forced labor and child labor globally according to the International Labor Organization (“ILO”), the COVID-19 pandemic has seen some retrenchment and efforts by China to address minorities in country have created an international backlash and concern.

The ILO webpage on forced labor reflects the global nature of the problem. The webpage states in part,

“Although forced labour is universally condemned, ILO estimates show that 24.9 million people around the world are still subjected toit. Of the total number of victims of forced labour, 20.8 million (83 per cent) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises, and the remaining 4.1 million (17 per cent) are in State-imposed forms of forced labour. Among those exploited by private individuals or enterprises, 8 million (29 per cent) are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 12 million (64 per cent) of forced labour exploitation. Forced labour in the private economy generates some US$ 150 billion in illegal profits every year: two thirds of the estimated total (or US$ 99 billion) comes from commercial sexual exploitation, while another US$ 51 billion is a result from forced economic exploitation in domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities (Note 1).

“Vestiges of slavery are still found in some parts of Africa, while forced labour in the form of coercive recruitment is present in many countries of Latin America, in certain areas of the Caribbean and in other parts of the world. In numerous countries, domestic workers are trapped in situations of forced labour, and in many cases they are restrained from leaving the employers’ home through threats or violence. Bonded labour persists in South Asia, where millions of men, women and children are tied to their work through a vicious circle of debt. In Europe and North America, a considerable number of women and children are victims of traffickers, who sell them to networks of forced prostitution or clandestine sweat-shops. Finally, forced labour is still used as a punishment for expressing political views.

“For many governments around the world, the elimination of forced labour remains an important challenge in the 21st century. Not only is forced labour a serious violation of a fundamental human right, it is a leading cause of poverty and a hindrance to economic development. ILO standards on forced labour, associated with well-targeted technical assistance, are the main tools at the international level to combat this scourge.”

ILO, International Labour Standards on Forced labour, https://www.ilo.org/global/standards/subjects-covered-by-international-labour-standards/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm. See also ILO and Walk Free, 2017, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, Forced Labor and Forced Marriage, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf.

Child labor involves more people – an estimated 152 million of which 73 million are involved in hazardous work. See ILO, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour (IPEC+), https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/how-the-ilo-works/flagships/ipec-plus/lang–en/index.htm.

While the incidence of forced labor and child labor is declining, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated trends as these populations are most vulnerable. See, e.g., ILO, The International Labour Organization
and the US Department of Labor partnership to eliminate child labour and forced labour, 2019, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_norm/@ipec/documents/publication/wcms_710971.pdf (“The ILO’s most recent global estimates of child labour indicate, however, that significant progress is
being made. From 2000 to 2016, there was a net reduction of 94 million children in child labour and
the number of children in hazardous work was halved. In parallel, the ILO Worst Forms of Child
Labour Convention (No. 182) was ratified by 186 countries, reaching almost universal ratification.
The challenges ahead, however, remain formidable: in 2016, 152 million girls and boys were in child
labour and 25 million men, women and children were trapped in forced labour.”); ILO, COVID-19 impact on
child labour and forced labour: The response of the IPEC+ Flagship Programme, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_745287.pdf (“COVID-19 has plunged the world into a crisis of unprecedented scope and scale. Undoubtedly, restoring global health remains the first priority, but the strict measures required are resulting in massive economic and social shocks. As lockdown, quarantine, physical distancing and other isolation measures to suppress transmission continue, the global economy has plunged into a recession. The harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally. They are expected to be most damaging in the poorest countries and in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations, such as
children in child labour and victims of forced labour and human trafficking, particularly women and girls.
These vulnerable groups are more affected by income shocks due to the lack of access to social protection,
including health insurance and unemployment benefits. * * * Experience from previous crisis situations, such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic, has shown that these factors play a particularly strong role in exacerbating the risk to child labour and forced labour.”).

In China, the government’s efforts to “reeducate” minority populations (e.g., Uyghurs from the western region of Xinjiang) has led to allegations of forced labor on a range of products and actions by the United States to restrict certain imports from China from the region. The Washington International Trade Association is holding a virtual webinar on January 27 looking at the challenges in China and the forced labor problem of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the resulting U.S. ban on cotton and tomato products. See WITA, WITA’s Friday Focus on Trade, Vol. 206, January 22, 2021 (containing various articles on the China forced labor issue and referencing the webinar on January 27, WITA Webinar: The U.S. Moves Against Forced Labor in Xinjiang).

The U.S. Department of Labor in September released its 2020 list of products believed to be produced in foreign countries with forced labor or with child labor. See USDOL, 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, September 2020, https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf. The report provides the following statement of purpose:

“The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL or the Department) has produced this ninth edition of the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor in accordance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), as amended. The TVPRA requires USDOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB or the Bureau) to “develop and make available to the public a list of goods from countries that
[ILAB] has reason to believe are produced by forced labor or child labor in violation of international standards” (TVPRA List or the List; 22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(2)(C)). It also requires submission of the TVPRA List to the United States Congress not later than December 1, 2014, and every 2 years thereafter (22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(3)).

“The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018 expanded ILAB’s mandate to require the TVPRA List to include, ‘to the extent practicable, goods that are produced with inputs that are produced with forced labor or child labor’” (22 U.S.C. 7112(b)(2)(C)).

“The TVPRA directs ILAB ‘to work with persons who are involved in the production of goods on the list … to create a standard set of practices that will reduce the likelihood that such persons will produce goods using [child labor or forced labor],’ and ‘to consult with other departments and agencies of the United States Government to reduce forced and child labor internationally and ensure that products made by forced labor and child labor in violation of international standards are not imported into the United States’ (22 U.S.C. § 7112(b)(2)(D)–(E)).” (pages 1 and 3).

This year’s publication lists 77 countries that have one or more products believed to be produced with child labor, with forced labor or with both child and forced labor. Fourteen countries are listed as having products believed to be produced with forced labor. Thirty-six countries are listed as believed to produce products with child and forced labor. Sixty-four countries produce some products with child labor. The 77 countries are listed below along with whether products are believed produced with child labor, forced labor, or child labor & forced labor.

Afghanistan — child larbor; child labor & forced labor

Angola — child labor & forced labor

Argentina — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Azerbaijan — child labor

Bangladesh – child labor; child labor & forced labor

Belize — child labor

Benin — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Bolivia — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Brazil — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Burkina Faso — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Burma — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Cambodia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Cameroon — child labor

Central African Republic — child labor

Chad — child labor

China — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Colombia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Costa Rica — child labor

Cote d’Ivoire — child labor & forced labor

Democratic Republic of the Congo — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Dominican Republic — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Ecuador — child labor

Egypt — child labor

El Salvador — child labor

Eswatini — child labor

Ethiopia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Ghana — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Guatemala — child labor

Guinea — child labor

Honduras — child labor

India — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Indonesia — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Iran — child labor

Kazakhstan — child labor & forced labor

Kenya — child labor

Kyrgyz Republic — child labor

Lebanon — child labor

Lesotho — child labor

Liberia — child labor

Madagascar — child labor

Malawi — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Malaysia — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Mali — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Mauritania — child labor

Mexico — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Mongolia — child labor

Mozambique — child labor

Nepal — child labor & forced labor

Nicaragua — child labor

Niger — child labor; forced labor

Nigeria — child labor; child labor & forced labor

North Korea — forced labor

Pakistan — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Panama — child labor

Paraguay — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Peru — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Philippines — child labor

Russia — forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Rwanda — child labor

Senegal — child labor

Sierra Leone –child labor; child labor & forced labor

South Sudan — child labor & forced labor

Sudan — child labor

Suriname — child labor

Taiwan — forced labor

Tajikistan — child labor & forced labor

Tanzania — child labor

Thailand — child labor; forced labor; child labor & forced labor

Turkey — child labor

Turkmenistan — child labor & forced labor

Uganda — child labor

Ukraine — child labor

Uzbekistan — forced labor

Venezuela — forced labor

Vietnam — child labor; child labor & forced labor

Yemen — child labor

Zambia — child labor

Zimbabwe — child labor

While the number of products obviously vary by country and category, the report categorized agriculture as having 68 child labor listings and 29 forced labor listings. This compares to manufacturing with 39 child labor and 20 forced labor listings; mining showed 32 child labor and 13 forced labor listings and pornography showed one each.

Looking at specific products for individual countries provides the most information.

As an example, China is shown as having the following products believed to be produced with forced labor — Artificial Flowers, Christmas Decorations, Coal, Fish, Footwear, Garments, Gloves, Hair Products, Nails, Thread/Yarn, and Tomato Products. China is also shown as having the following products believed to be produced with child labor and forced labor — Bricks, Cotton, Electronics, Fireworks, Textiles, and Toys. As a USDOL separate post notes, gloves, hair products, textiles, thread/yarn and tomato products were added in 2020 because of research on the forced labor situation in Xinjiang. See USDOL, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, Against Their Will: The Situation in Xinjiang, Forced Labor in Xinjiang, 2020, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/against-their-will-the-situation-in-xinjiang. The document is embedded below.

Against-Their-Will_-The-Situation-in-Xinjiang-_-U.S.-Department-of-Labor

Looking at India, products believed to be produced with child labor include the following — Bidis (hand-rolled
cigarettes), Brassware, Cotton, Fireworks, Footwear, Gems, Glass Bangles, Incense (agarbatti), Leather Goods/
Accessories, Locks, Matches, Mica, Silk Fabric, Silk Thread, Soccer Balls, Sugarcane, Thread/Yarn. Products believed produced with child labor & forced labor include the following — Bricks, Carpets, Cottonseed (hybrid), Embellished Textiles, Garments, Rice, Sandstone, Stones.

While the USDOL reports don’t estimate the portion of exports from any country of individual products that are produced with child and/or forced labor, the trade consequences can be significant as such labor is artificially valued creating distortions in competitiveness and resulting trade flows. For example, the list of products for China are either important export products for China or important inputs into exported products. The same would true for India and for many other of the 77 countries on the list.

Conclusion

The U.S. has in place statutory provisions which permit the exclusion from entry into the United states of products produced with forced labor. The Trump Administration did a somewhat better job enforcing U.S. law on imports of products produced with child or forced labor. Much more can be done and should be done domestically.

Similarly, the ILO is working to eliminate forced labor and child labor consistent with UN Sustainable Development Goals. “The objective of the IPEC+ Global Flagship Programme – in line with Target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by the United Nations in 2015 – is to provide ILO leadership in global efforts to eradicate all forms of child labour by 2025 and all forms of contemporary slavery and human trafficking by 2030. It also aims to ensure that all people are protected from – and can protect themselves against – these gross human rights violations.” ILO, IPEC+ Global Flagship Programme Implementation, Towards a world free from child labour and forced labour, page 4, 2020, https://respect.international/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/wcms_633435.pdf.

The WTO could play a role in the fight against forced labor and child labor. Such labor practices distort global trade flows in addition to the challenges created for countries engaged in such practices in terms of poverty and human rights abuses. The WTO could gather information from Members on the volume of production and exports of products produced with child and forced labor both as finished products and as inputs into other products. Such an exercise would facilitate an understanding of the extent of global trade represented by such products and help focus attention on trade actions that could be taken to help Members eliminate such harmful practices. While it is unlikely that Members will agree to such a data gathering undertaking, one is surely needed and would add transparency to a source of an important global issue with trade as well as non-trade dimensions.

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.

Oil and gas sector suffers declining demand, collapsing prices, expanded state involvement — skewed economic results damage much of the global economy

The United States and many other countries view the World Trade Organization as the forum for global trade rules that support market economies. One of the challenges for the WTO going forward is what to do with the important Members whose economic systems are not anchored in market economic principles. While China is the most frequently mentioned WTO Member whose economic system is causing massive disruptions for market economies, there are other countries with important sectors that are state-owned, controlled and directed. The United States, European Union and Japan have been working on proposals for modifications of WTO rules to address distortions flowing from massive industrial subsidies and state controlled sectors that do not operate on market principles.

While WTO reform is not likely to see serious engagement by WTO Members before the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, the sharp contraction of economic activity in many countries is highlighting the importance for WTO Members actually addressing the role of the state in industry and rule changes needed to avoid the massive distortions that state involvement too often created.

Oil and Gas as an Example

Few industrial sectors have as much state ownership and control as the oil and gas sector. While there are countries with privately owned producers, much of the world operates with producers that are state owned or state controlled. Since the 1960s, a number of countries have engaged in cartel-like activity to collectively address production levels to achieve desired price levels. While many of these countries are part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”), OPEC meets with other countries as well in an effort to achieve production and pricing levels. Current OPEC members include Algeria, Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

The activity has resulted in artificial pricing levels in export markets as compared to prices in home markets of OPEC members and periodic price shocks based on collective action. Large price increases in the 1970s led to high levels of inflation and rapid changes to manufacturing operations in some countries.

  1. Economic contraction as countries struggle to limit spread of the coronavirus

There has been a sharp contraction in demand for petroleum products in 2020 as countries have shut down movement of people in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. Air travel has been decimated in many parts of the world and there are significant reductions in automobile travel. Manufacturing has also seen significant reductions. The contractions have resulted not only in national reductions in use of petroleum products but also international reductions both directly (reduced air traffic and ship traffic) and because of disruptions to supply chains which have reduced downstream production.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a staff research report on April 21, 2020 entitled “Cascading Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Outbreak in China” which reviews information on the wide range of economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic as felt in the U.S. https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/Cascading_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Novel_Coronavirus_April_21_2020.pdf. The report includes a section entitled “Turmoil in Energy Markets” which states,

“The standstill in Chinese production and halt in flows of goods and people has drastically depressed Chinese demand for energy products such as crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG), adding pressure to an oil supply glut that had materialized at the end of 2019.99 In December of 2019, Institute of International Finance economist Garbis Iradian had forecasted a supply glut, pointing to high output from Brazil, Canada, and the United States.100 The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated this challenging outlook. As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported in April 2020: ‘The largest ever monthly decline in petroleum demand in China occurred in February 2020.’101 Chinese oil demand ‘shrank by a massive 3.2 million barrels per day’ over the prior year.102 Research by OPEC forecasted China’s 2020 demand for oil will decrease by 0.83 million barrels per day over 2019.103 As the largest oil importer,104 Chinese oil consumption has a significant impact on global demand. In 2019, China accounted for 14 percent of global oil demand and more than 80 percent of growth in oil demand.105 Following the outbreak in China, the OPEC Joint Technical Committee held a meeting on February 8 to recommend new and continued oil production adjustments in light of “the negative impact on oil demand” due to depressed economic activity, “particularly in the transportation, tourism, and industry sectors, particularly in China.”106 In LNG markets, on February 10, Caixin reported Chinese state-owned oil giant China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) requested a reduction of an unknown quantity in LNG shipments, invoking a “force majeure” clause due to COVID-19.107 S&P Global Platts, an energy and commodities analysis group, stated China’s LNG imports in January and February fell more than 6 percent over the same period in 2019.108

Prices have also dropped in this period. OPEC’s reference price index fell from $66.48 per barrel in December 2019 to $55.49 per barrel in February 2020, a drop of 19.8 percent.109 These price cuts are causing financially strapped* U.S. energy producers to cut back investment in oil and gas projects as profits erode. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the current drop in oil prices will lead to lower U.S. crude oil production beginning in the third quarter of 2020.110″

The complete report is embedded below (footnotes 99-110 can be found on page 22 of the report).

USCC-staff-research-Cascading_Economic_Impacts_of_the_Novel_Coronavirus_April_21_2020

2. State-owned or controlled oil companies create further crisis

With a sharp contraction in oil demand, one would expect falling oil prices and reductions in global production over time. OPEC efforts to achieve reductions in production amongst themselves and Russia didn’t work out with Russia walking out of talks to reduce production to prevent further price declines. Russia and Saudi Arabia then engaged in a price war which resulted in further sharp price reductions in March and early April, large surpluses of oil in the market, with dwindling storage capacity for surplus production. See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Russia%E2%80%93Saudi_Arabia_oil_price_war (and sources cited therein). Below is a graph of crude oil prices from 2015 through April 2020.

3. April Agreement to Reduce Production Beginning in May and June 2020

The United States, concerned with the collapse of oil prices and the effects on U.S. producers and oil/gas field companies, engaged in outreach to both Saudi Arabia and Russia to seek a solution. OPEC members, Russia and many others (including the United States) agreed to global production reductions of close to 10 million barrels/day beginning in May and carrying through June, with smaller reductions for later periods, in an effort to bring about balance between supply and demand. See, e.g., April 12, 2020, AP article, “OPEC, oil nations agree to nearly 10M barrel cut amid virus,” https://apnews.com/e9b73ec833e9a5ad304a69e3b9b86914. The U.S. Department of Energy has a webpage that reviews statements by members of Congress and others on the OPEC+ deal.

Because the agreement kicks in at the beginning of May, the continued production and reductions in available storage for oil resulted in further declines in oil prices, with prices on April 20 going negative for the first time in history. Prices have recovered somewhat in the last several days. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/24/oil-prices-could-remain-under-pressure-according-to-satellite-imagery-analysis.html; https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/OPECs-No3-Already-Started-Cutting-Oil-Supply.html.

WTO Challenges

Joint action during the global COVID-19 pandemic may be understandable and in keeping with the resort to extraordinary measures by governments during the crisis to preserve health and economies. Nonetheless, the extraordinary distortions that flow to global commerce from joint government activity limiting production of oil and gas products or establishing minimum prices for export have been ignored within the GATT and now the WTO for decades. This is unfortunate as the distortions affect both competing producers of the products in question in other countries and also downstream users and consumers more broadly. The overall distortions over time are certainly in the trillions of dollars.

GATT Art. XX(g) permits governments to enforce measures “relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources if such measures are made effective in conjunction with restrictions on domestic production or consumption.” While there have been some cases where Art. XX(g) has been examined, actions by OPEC or OPEC+ countries to limit production (and hence exports) have never been challenged.

While there are national antitrust laws in many countries, such laws (such as those in the United States) don’t make government interference in the economy or government restrictions on export actionable despite the harm to consumers and to downstream manufacturers.

In a consensus based system like the WTO, the likelihood of obtaining improved rules on state-owned or state-invested companies or to restrict governments’ ability to unilaterally or jointly restrict production and exports seems implausible. This is especially true on oil and gas with Saudi Arabia and Russia as WTO Members. The US-EU-Japan initiative hasn’t yet fleshed out possible rule changes for state entities, so one may see some efforts in the coming years that could be useful if accepted by the full membership. But if there is to be meaningful WTO reform, agreeing on rules for the actions of governments that affect production and trade in goods and services is clearly of great importance. Without such rules, the WTO will not actually support market economies in critical ways.

Modifying antitrust laws is the other option, but one which legislators have been unwilling to address over the last fifty years. It is not clear that there are current champions of such modifications in the United States or in other major countries.

Conclusion

There are many sectors of economies that are being seriously adversely affected by efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Governments are taking extraordinary actions to try to prevent their economies from collapsing under the strains of social distancing.

The oil and gas sector is one where there has been significant negative volume and price effects. Unfortunately the extent of the negative volume and price effects is driven in large part by the actions of governments who are preventing the global market for these products from functioning correctly, just as government actions have interfered in the functioning of these markets for the last fifty-sixty years.

The recent agreement to slash global production by nearly 10 million barrels per day was needed in light of the extensive government interference that has characterized the market and the actions by Russia and Saudi Arabia in March and early April.

More importantly, the long-term government involvement and interference with the functioning of the sector should cause trade negotiators and legislators to be looking at how to reform the WTO and/or modify national laws to prevent government ownership, control or cartel-like actions from distorting trade flows and economies. The need is pressing, but don’t hold your breath for action in the coming years.