Arbitration — the stop-gap when WTO appeals are unavailable

A group of WTO members have agreed on an alternative way to get a second legal opinion

Patch: appeal by arbitration would only be used while the Appellate Body cannot function

By Peter Ungphakorn

On August 3, 2020, a group of 50 World Trade Organization members — 30% of the membership — announced that an alternative arrangement was up and running, as a means of getting round a blockage preventing formal appeals in WTO dispute settlement.

Developed gradually since early 2019, the system would retain countries’ ability to get a second opinion after a first-stage “panel” ruling, through arbitration instead of going through the non-functioning Appellate Body.

But unlike a standard appeal, the outcome of the arbitration would not be formally adopted by the WTO’s membership, and therefore would not be part of official WTO law at least not with the same weight as a full appeal.

On October 6, 2022, the first case was appealed. Less than three months later on December 21, it produced the first arbitration appeal ruling.

Jump to:

Who’s in, who’s out and legal effect (MPIA) | An alternative to the alternative (Turkey and the EU) | Read on (The MPIA: What’s New? by Joost Pauwelyn)

Twenty-five years ago in 1995, the new ability to appeal an initial ruling was one of several acclaimed changes in dispute settlement, introduced when the World Trade Organization was created to take over the multilateral trading system from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

(Another was the change to the consensus rule. Under GATT, rulings could only be adopted by consensus of the membership, allowing a “losing” country to block a ruling. Now they could only be rejected by consensus.)

The US was one of the driving forces behind those reforms. But more recently it has objected to how appeals are handled and has blocked the appointment or reappointment of Appellate Body judges.

As their terms expired the judges dwindled from seven to only one left in position from December 2019 — two short of the minimum of three needed to hear an appeal — and since November 30, 2020, none. The Appellate Body can no longer function. Worse, some first-stage panel reports have deliberately been appealed “into the void” so that they cannot proceed. (More on this here.)

The stop-gap alternative would be by voluntary arbitration under Article 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding, the WTO agreement governing legal disputes. It will only be used until the Appellate Body can resume.

WTO Multilaterals logo
SEE ALSO The Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement (MPIA) page on Geneva Trade Platform’s WTO Plurilaterals website

Arbitration features regularly in WTO disputes, particularly to determine whether proposed retaliation over failure to comply with a ruling is excessive. This would be the first time it has been used to appeal panel rulings.

The system is “voluntary” because the countries involved choose to participate and to comply with the outcome. Its official name is the Multi-party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement (MPIA). For normal appeals, compliance is an obligation.

The final step in setting up the system was to create a pool of 10 arbitrators. The group announced on July 31, 2020, that the 10 arbitrators had been appointed (see this announcement from the EU and this from Canada).

Then, on October 6, 2022, the first use of this system was announced. Colombia appealed a panel ruling in a case (DS591) on anti-dumping duties on European frozen fries (or chips in the British meaning) under the multi-party arrangement. (See this assessment by Simon Lester, who says “… most of the issues are pretty basic anti-dumping ones, but there is a possibility of an important systemic issue coming up”.)

On December 21, 2022, the first arbitration appeal ruling was issued. (See “read on” below)

Who’s in, who’s out and legal effectBack to top

This alternative appeal system began life in 2019, first as a bilateral agreement between the EU and Canada, and then the EU and Norway.

On January 24, 2020, first moves were announced to turn this from the bilateral agreements into a group arrangement as a number of other countries joined in. This became a fully-developed text shared with the WTO membership on April 30, 2020.

On August 3, 2020 the list of arbitrators was announced, when the group had grown to 5o WTO members (counting the EU as 28). The total is now 53:

Australia, Benin, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the EU and its 27 member states, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Iceland, Japan, Macao, Mexico, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Uruguay (total 53).

But between January and August, two countries had dropped out: S.Korea and Panama.

Also notably absent are the US and UK, along with Argentina, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and others.

Announced on August 3, 2020:
1. Mateo Diego-Fernández ANDRADE (Mexico)
2. Thomas COTTIER (Switzerland)
3. Locknie HSU (Singapore)
4. Valerie HUGHES (Canada)
5. Alejandro JARA (Chile)
6. José Alfredo Graça LIMA (Brazil)
7. Claudia OROZCO (Colombia)
8. Joost PAUWELYN (EU/Belgium)
9. Penelope RIDINGS (New Zealand)
10. Guohua YANG (China)

The stop-gap appeals would be heard by three out of a pool of 10 standing appeal arbitrators (and not former Appellate Body judges as in the earlier Canada-EU — see this news story — and Norway-EU agreements). The three would be chosen according to the same principles as for the full Appellate Body.

“This is a slate of very talented, professional, experienced women and men,” tweeted Jennifer Hillman, a former Appellate Body judge.

“They may be able to show the world how to do appeals in state-to-state disputes without running into the problems the WTO Appellate Body encountered.”

The arbitrators (officially the singular “arbitrator”) appointed in the first appealed case (DS591) are José Alfredo Graça Lima, Alejandro Jara and Joost Pauwelyn.

But a number of issues remain unresolved, where administrative and legal support would come from and who would pay for it.

What the procedure does say is that the support “will be entirely separate from” the WTO Secretariat’s staff and divisions that support first-stage panels.

Would it include seconding WTO Secretariat staff? Would the support come from some or all of the countries participating in the system? Who would pay for it? So far, those questions are unanswered, but the WTO Director-General is supposed to play a role:

7. The participating Members envisage that appeal arbitrators will be provided with appropriate administrative and legal support, which will offer the necessary guarantees of quality and independence, given the nature of the responsibilities involved. The participating Members envisage that the support structure will be entirely separate from the WTO Secretariat staff and its divisions supporting the panels and be answerable, regarding the substance of their work, only to appeal arbitrators. The participating Members request the WTO Director General to ensure the availability of a support structure meeting these criteria.

This patch would also seem to have an important legal difference compared with a normal appeal.

A quirk in WTO rules on dispute settlement says that a panel ruling that is not formally appealed has to go to the WTO membership (in the Dispute Settlement Body) to be adopted. That would make appeal by arbitration pointless.

So when the multi-party arrangement is used, the countries in the dispute ask the panel process to be suspended. The panel’s report is not submitted to the WTO membership and is not circulated as would normally happen.

And, the outcome of the arbitration is not adopted by the WTO membership either. It is simply be notified to them as required by Article 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding.

Therefore it’s unlikely it would be seen as an official interpretation or clarification of WTO law and could not be cited as a precedent in future cases. (This and other legal implications — including whether retaliation would be possible if a country failed to comply with an arbitration ruling — are discussed here for Türkiye’s appeal under a bilateral arrangement with the EU, and also in this article, and many others found here.)

But the arrangement does allow the original first-stage panel report to be made public and available to the membership. The document announcing the appeal-by-arbitration includes the panel’s report as an attachment. That’s what Colombia’s October 6, 2022 announcement does — all but two of the 93 pages are the panel’s report. (The same happened with an appeal by arbitration from Türkiye under a separate bilateral arrangement with the EU.)

The idea of using arbitration as a way of getting round the Appellate Body blockage has been around for some time. Among advocates are a group of lawyers affiliated with Sidley Austin LLP, some formerly at the WTO (2017), Jens Hillebrand Pohl of Maastricht University (September 2017)  and former Appellate Body judge James Bacchus (October 2018).

It remains to be seen whether more countries join the group, and how the move is put into practice.

An alternative to the alternativeBack to top

Turkey is not part of this multi-party group, but in early 2022, the EU and Turkey agreed bilaterally to use appeal-by-arbitration as a means of double-checking a panel ruling.

Details of the EU-Turkey system, the first appealed case, how the bilateral procedure compares with the multi-party version, and the first appealed case, are here.

Read onBack to top

The MPIA: What’s New?
Written by Joost Pauwelyn, one of the arbitrators, describing the system and how it compares formal WTO Appeal, after the first appeal-by-arbitration concluded. On the International Economic Law and Policy blog:

From those pieces, the independent “WTO Plurilaterals” website has updated its entry on the system

This article was originally part of a longer piece on the problems in the WTO’s Appellate Body, which includes a reading list here. The Multi-party Interim Appeal Arrangement is listed among 18 “plurilaterals” in the WTO.

April 13, 2023 — updating the list of participants to include Japan
December 21, 2022 — adding the outcome of Colombia’s appeal under the multi-party arrangement
October 11–13, 2022 — adding Colombia’s appeal under the multi-party arrangement, the appointment of arbitrators, with edits to reflect that
May 3, 2022 — adding details on administrative and legal support. (April 29, 2022 — adding the EU-Turkey appeal-by-arbitration, now moved to a new blog post.)
January 29, 2021 — adding links to articles on the International Economic Law and Policy blog, and to a reading list and a piece on plurilaterals on this blog.
February 13, 2020 — adding “appeal into the void” and update to reflect no Appellate Body judges left
September 23, 2020 — adding Macao to the participants list

Credits: Photos CC0

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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