Trade ministers renew commitment to fixing WTO dispute settlement in 2024, but few signs of progress

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Trade ministers from the World Trade Organization’s 164 member countries can agree on at least one basic thing about the WTO’s dispute settlement process: they’re still committed to fixing the broken system for resolving trade disputes.

Beyond that, there were few signs of progress as trade representatives, including Canada’s Mary Ng and the United States’ Katherine Tai, met in Abu Dhabi last week for the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference (referred to as MC13).

The WTO members were able to agree on issuing a “ministerial decision” that reiterated their commitment to having a fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system available to all members before the end of 2024. They also directed their officials to accelerate the discussions, specifically on some of the unresolved issues, including appeal/review and accessibility.

The dispute settlement process has been dysfunctional since around 2018, with the U.S. refusing to approve new judges for the WTO’s appellant body out of protest.

“Dispute settlement is not working, because the U.S. has blocked the formation of appellate boards — there’s no effective dispute settlement. And there’s no real effort to try to move any kind of negotiations forward successfully,” noted Canada’s former chief trade negotiator, Steve Verheul, joining RealAg Radio at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s annual meeting in Ottawa last week.

Verheul said the lack of coverage of the WTO ministerial meeting was a sign expectations were low. “The gaps between positions are just simply too large at this point.”

The meeting turned out to be “more of a stock-taking exercise than one that reached progress on key issues,” said Michael Harvey, executive director of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance (CAFTA).

At the same time, CAFTA’s export-focused members “note positively that key WTO rules remain in place, and that WTO members will continue to negotiate agricultural trade policy reforms, with a view to making markets fairer and more competitive,” continued Harvey.

CAFTA’s delegation in Abu Dhabi included representatives from the Canadian Canola Growers Association, Canadian Cattle Association, Canola Council of Canada, Grain Growers of Canada, and Cereals Canada.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, as well as supply-managed commodity organizations, also had representatives at the WTO meeting.

The WTO’s next Ministerial Conference is scheduled to be held in 2026 in Cameroon.

Related:

Behind the traderoom door — a one-on-one with Steve Verheul

Is the WTO broken?

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