How the WTO deals with problem trade measures—it’s not just dispute settlement

The Appellate Body is in a deep freeze, but those who think it will drag trade into the law of the jungle are in for a surprise

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 11, 2019 | UPDATED JULY 14, 2021

A very short summary and graphic:
Dispute settlement is not essential (but it helps)

The public discussion of the Appellate Body crisis in the World Trade Organization (WTO) has revealed some fundamental misunderstandings about how governments’ actions on trade are handled in the organisation.

This is important. The WTO is now a quarter of a century old. Its real achievements are hardly noticed. They never hit the headlines.

Instead, the impression we get is that it’s all about the dispute settlement crisis (and previously the struggle to conclude negotiations).

The Appellate Body has been unable to function since December 11, 2019. This has crippled WTO dispute settlement, we’re told, ultimately jeopardising a trading system that’s supposed to be based on rules — rules that can no longer be “enforced” as a result of the crisis.

We’re going to be left with the law of the jungle instead of the rule of law. Just watch and wait. It could be the end of the WTO, we’re told.

We might have to wait an awfully long time, because keeping international trade within agreed rules relies on much more than dispute settlement. In fact a key purpose of the WTO is to keep formal disputes to a minimum, and it does a pretty good job at that.

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