As of April 20, 2020, there has been relatively limited new activity within the WTO on dispute settlement. Indeed just two requests for consultations were filed in the first quarter of 2020. While not the lowest number for the first quarter, it is one of the lowest over the first 25+ years of the WTO existence.
The reason or reasons for the low number of disputes is not known. However, many WTO Members are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic at home reducing the focus on WTO activities. Moreover, the pandemic has disrupted the ability of the WTO to conduct business as usual, with no meetings in person having taken place over the last month and with many Members arguing against making substantive decisions during the pendency of the pandemic lockdown in many countries.
There have been a few Appellate Body reports on disputes where Appellate Body hearings had occurred before December 10, 2019 and some panel reports issued in ongoing cases. The Appellate Body will not issue further reports after the plain packaging cases pending a resolution of the impasse on the functioning of the Appellate Body.
Arbitration under Art. 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding
The EU and fifteen other WTO Members have agreed to a Multi-Party Interim Arbitration Agreement to permit signatories to use arbitration along agreed lines as a substitute for an appeal within the WTO until the Appellate Body is back functioning. While the agreement has not been notified to the WTO as yet, pending signatories clearing domestic hurdles, the agreement is open to other WTO Members who wish to participate.
n an introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at an informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers on April 16, Commissioner Hogan stated that
“Working with like-minded WTO members since the effective collapse of the Appellate Body last December, we have developed the Multi Party Interim Arbitration Arrangement as a stop-gap to maintain an independent, two step dispute settlement function.
“There are 15 co-signatories alongside the EU, including some of the biggest users of the system, such as Brazil and China. I have also extended a broad invite to the entire membership to join, underlining the inclusive nature of the arrangement.
“There will be 10 arbitrators on the MPIA roster. The EU has the option of nominating a candidate. The nominee will need to be submitted by the end of May. We will notify the TPC of work on this in due course, respecting best practices used for the nomination of members of the Appellate Body heretofore.”
EU’s efforts to retaliate without WTO authorization where Appellate Body is not functioning and defending party does not agree to arbitration
The EU has also been working to develop regulatory authority to impose sanctions without WTO authorization on Members against whom the EU has brought disputes when such Members lose panel decisions at the WTO, don’t participate in arbitration and rather file an appeal when the Appellate Body is not functioning preventing retaliation at the WTO.
The EU Council and Parliament need to meet to agree to a modified final text. It is assumed that a major target of the EU actions is the United States. There are two pending disputes that the EU has with the US where panels are underway, including the EU challenge to the US Section 232 actions on steel and aluminum and the EU challenge of a countervailing duty order on olives from Spain.
On the 232 dispute, the EU did not pursue a challenge prior to taking retaliation, claiming that the US use of the national security law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended) on steel and aluminum was in effect a safeguard action. Thus, the EU claimed it was justified in retaliating to a certain extent immediately consistent with the Safeguard Agreement.
The U.S. has filed a dispute challenging the EU’s retaliation as the U.S. action was not taken under U.S. safeguard (escape clause) law but pursuant to a national security law making the EU retaliation inappropriate. Both disputes are pending before panels at the WTO.
The interesting element of the EU’s pursuit of new regulatory authority is its willingness to act outside of the WTO while wrapping itself in the mantle of champion of the multilateral system.
China’s challenge of U.S. tariffs following Section 301 of Trade Act of 1974 investigation (and retaliations by China)
In August 2017, USTR commenced an investigation into whether certain actions of the Chinese government violated Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. Forced technology transfer, cybertheft of intellectual property and other issues were investigated by USTR and resulted in a determination in early 2018 of violations of U.S. law.
China filed a WTO dispute after the initial tariffs imposed by the United States. WT/DS543. It filed two additional requests for consultations as the U.S. expanded tariffs on other products, although both of these requests for consulation remain in the consultation phase. WT/DS565 and WT/DS587. The U.S. filed a challenge to China’s retaliation. WT/DS558.
While the panel proceedings have been underway in Geneva, the United States and China reached a Phase One Agreement in January 2020.
The WTO dispute settlement panel provided a notice to the parties that the panel decision would be available to the parties by the end of June (a little more than two months from now).
Because the dispute involves the largest amount of trade (at least when considering the additional actions by both the U.S. and China) of any trade dispute in the history of the WTO, the panel decision will not only be carefully watched by all members but could result in major rifts within the organization by one or both of the parties.
China’s briefs in disputes are typically not publicly available. The U.S. always releases public versions of its briefs. The below excerpt from the first U.S. submission in WT/DS543 gives a glimpse of the importance of the case from the United States perspective. The entire first brief is embedded.
“1. Technology, intellectual property, and innovation are the foundation of the competitiveness of the United States and many other Members in the world economy. China has chosen to adopt a range of policies and practices to obtain an unfair competitive edge over other Members by stealing or otherwise unfairly acquiring their technology and intellectual property. Where those policies or practices can be addressed through WTO rules, the United States is pursuing WTO dispute settlement. Most of China’s practices, however, are not covered by existing WTO disciplines.
“2. In these circumstances, the United States is pursuing its sovereign right to protect its fundamental economic competitiveness from China’s unfair, predatory, and harmful technology-transfer policies. The purpose of the U.S. tariff action is to obtain the elimination of China’s unfair practices, and thereby to promote a fair and sustainable trading system for the United States and all other Members that rely on technology and intellectual property for their competitiveness in world markets. Unfortunately, China has responded not by reforming its unfair technology-transfer policies, but instead by imposing retaliatory tariffs on most U.S. goods.
“3. In pursuing this course of action, China has demonstrated what the Panel should conclude in response to China’s pursuit of this dispute – namely, that this is a bilateral dispute between the United States and China concerning key economic issues not covered by existing WTO rules. In short, this dispute is fundamentally not about WTO rights and obligations.
“4. China’s decision to pursue this dispute represents a profound misuse and abuse of the WTO dispute settlement system. Having already adopted retaliation in response to the U.S. measures aimed at obtaining a fair world trading system, China knows full well that any WTO findings will not contribute to the resolution of the matter. Rather, China’s pursuit of this dispute is a cynical and hypocritical attempt to try to have the WTO side with China in the ongoing dispute involving China’s unfair technology transfer policies. To elaborate:
“5. In bringing this dispute, China seeks to abuse the WTO dispute settlement system by attempting to use it as a shield for a broad range of unfair and trade-distorting technology transfer policies and practices not covered by WTO rules. In doing so, it is China, and certainly not the United States, that – as China puts it – ‘is undermining’1 the viability of the multilateral trading system.
“6. China’s decision to launch this dispute is hypocritical. China is currently retaliating against the United States by imposing duties on most U.S. exports – over $100 billion of trade. China cannot legitimately challenge measures at issue for being “unilateral”2 and WTO-inconsistent, while at the same time openly adopting its own unilateral tariff measures in connection with the very same matter.
“7. The matters related to this dispute are currently subject to bilateral discussions between the Governments of China and the United States. The parties are holding these discussions at multiple levels, including between the leaders of the two disputing parties. It is those bilateral discussions, and not any possible findings to be adopted by the Dispute Settlement Body (“DSB”), that will resolve the important issues arising from China’s unfair and harmful technology transfer policies, from the U.S. response to those policies, and from China’s unilateral retaliation.
“8. Under these circumstances, the outcome of a dispute settlement proceeding would be pointless, and, worse – a misuse by China of the dispute settlement system by trying to have the WTO side with China in support of its fundamentally unfair technology transfer policies.
“As noted, China has already taken the unilateral decision that the U.S. measures cannot be justified under WTO rules, and on that basis, already imposed tariff measures on most U.S. goods. Accordingly, addressing China’s legal claims would not ‘secure a positive solution to [this] dispute,’3 as China has already adopted the response that China unilaterally has determined is appropriate.
“9. Fundamentally, both the United States and China have recognized that this matter is not a WTO issue: China has taken the unilateral decision to adopt aggressive industrial policy measures to steal or otherwise unfairly acquire the technology of its trading partners; the United States has adopted tariff measures to try to obtain the elimination of China’s unfair and distortive technology-transfer policies; and China has chosen to respond – not by addressing the legitimate concerns of the United States – but by adopting its own tariff measures in an attempt to pressure the United States to abandon its concerns, and thus in an effort to maintain its unfair policies indefinitely.
“10. By taking actions in their own sovereign interests, both parties have recognized that this matter does not involve the WTO and have settled the matter themselves. Accordingly, there in fact is no live dispute involving WTO rights and obligations. Therefore, in light of each party’s action settling the matter, the report of the Panel should “be confined” to a brief description reporting that the parties have reached their own resolution, as provided for in Article 12.7 of the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes (‘DSU’).4
“11. Even aside from the fact that the parties have settled the matter through their actions, were the Panel to examine China’s contentions, the Panel would find that the U.S. measures at issue would be justified under WTO rules.
3 See DSU Article 3.7 (Providing in part that “The aim of the dispute settlement mechanism is to secure a positive solution to a dispute.”).
4 See DSU, Article 12.7 (‘Where the parties to the dispute have failed to develop a mutually satisfactory solution, the panel shall submit its findings in the form of a written report to the DSB. In such cases, the report of a panel shall set out the findings of fact, the applicability of relevant provisions and the basic rationale behind any findings and recommendations that it makes. Where a settlement of the matter among the parties to the dispute has been found, the report of the panel shall be confined to a brief description of the case and to reporting that a solution has been reached.’). (emphasis added).
“12. The United States adopted the measures at issue in this dispute to combat China’s longstanding policy and practice of using government interventions, coercion, and subterfuge to steal or otherwise improperly acquire intellectual property, trade secrets, technology, and confidential business information from U.S. companies with the aim of advantaging Chinese companies and advancing China’s industrial policy goals. Although China’s conduct is not addressed by current WTO rules, it is unfair and contrary to basic moral standards. No WTO Member endorses forced technology transfer policies and practices such as those employed by China.
“13. Indeed, such fundamentally unfair policies and practices undermine support for an international trading system that permits such practices to escape discipline, undermine U.S. norms against theft and coercion, and undermine the belief in fair competition and respect for innovation, all of which are key aspects of U.S. culture (as well as that in a number of other Members). ). The United States does not undertake these activities against Chinese citizens or companies.
“China’s non-reciprocal and morally wrong behaviour further threatens to undermine U.S. society’s belief in the fairness and utility of the WTO trading system, if that system creates the conditions for, and fails to address, a fundamentally uneven playing field. Accordingly, the measures at issue in this dispute are legally justified because they are measures “necessary to protect public morals” within the meaning of Article XX(a) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (“GATT 1994”).
“14. Finally, the United States notes that one of the U.S. measures that China is challenging in this dispute is not within the Panel’s terms of reference because it was issued and took effect after China requested the establishment of a panel. Accordingly, for this additional reason, there is no legal basis for the Panel to examine or make any findings with respect to that measure.
“15. The United States emphasizes that a world trading system where one Member can adopt policies to steal or unfairly acquire technology and intellectual property from its trading partners, and where the organization responsible for overseeing world trade would entertain a request to issue findings in support of the Member adopting these unfair actions, is simply unsustainable. In order to maintain the viability and relevance of the WTO, this Panel must reject China’s request that the Panel make findings that China might use as support for maintaining its fundamentally unfair technology transfer policies and practices.
“1 See China’s First Written Submission, para. 5.
“2 See China’s First Written Submission, paras. 3, 4, 5, 24.
“3 See DSU Article 3.7 (Providing in part that “The aim of the dispute settlement mechanism is to secure a positive solution to a dispute.”).
“4 See DSU, Article 12.7 (‘Where the parties to the dispute have failed to develop a mutually satisfactory solution, the panel shall submit its findings in the form of a written report to the DSB. In such cases, the report of a panel shall set out the findings of fact, the applicability of relevant provisions and the basic rationale behind any findings and recommendations that it makes. Where a settlement of the matter among the parties to the dispute has been found, the report of the panel shall be confined to a brief description of the case and to reporting that a solution has been reached.’). (emphasis added).”
Canada’s dispute with the U.S. over Countervailing Duty Order on Supercalendered Paper from Canada
Canada pursued a challenge to a countervailing duty investigation and order on supercalendered paper from Canada conducted by the United States and received reports from the panel and Appellate Body that the U.S. actions were inconsistent with WTO obligations. Canada pursued the challenge despite the fact that the order had been revoked retroactively by the United States. In a submission posted today on the WTO website, Canada has given notice that it intends to seek retaliation at such time as the DSB is able to convene (recognizing the present inability to meet because of the COVID-19 lockdown in place). WT/DS505/11 (20 April 2020).
Because the United States has viewed the panel and Appellate Body as having erred in their decisions in the case and because of the importance to the United States of its countervailing duty law in addressing other countries subsidy practices, any such action by Canada is likely to worsen the dynamics in Geneva and in capitals in terms of reaching reform of the dispute settlement system.
Needed reforms of the dispute settlement system
While there has been activity to put in place for some Members an arbitration system, there is little indication of any effort to pursue resolution of the underlying reform needs to the dispute settlement system outlined by the United States over the last several years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made forward movement more difficult as attention of most countries, understandably, is focused on the immediate needs of their populations to address the global pandemic.
With the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference already postponed, with meetings at the WTO cancelled through at least April, there has been increasingly diminished hopes for what the WTO can achieve in 2020. While the dumbing down of expectations appears true across the board of the WTO’s reform program and pending negotiations, it is certainly true for reform of the dispute settlement system.
The EU and China have engaged in unilateral action regardless of WTO rules (generally where the U.S. has taken actions that the others disagree with and don’t want to work through the WTO system or pursue reform). The U.S. has taken aggressive actions in a number of situations, though they have articulated WTO justifications for the actions which justifications are currently subject to WTO dispute settlement (but usually in situations where the Members challenging the U.S. have unilaterally retaliated without WTO authorization).
With important panel decisions due out yet this year and with EU actions to give itself retaliation rights regardless of WTO authorization while the Appellate Body is nonfunctioning, the likelihood of WTO Members focusing on dispute settlement reform are seemingly nonexistent for the foreseeable future. The ride is likely going to get a lot bumpier in the coming months.
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