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Wheels turning on WTO dispute resolution talks

Talks on reviving the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement system are making progress and drafting an agreement should begin in the coming months, a trade official source said Friday.

The official said countries “have reached an understanding on 80 percent of the issues under consideration, which are now ripe to move to the drafting process”.

As for the remaining 20 percent, half of the topics “are close to reaching the level of maturity needed” to start drafting, but the other half are “highly sensitive issues for which members still hold different conceptual views about how to tackle them”, the official said, AFP reported.

The WTO is usually closed in August so the drafting process would not begin before September.

Washington has long complained about the WTO’s dispute settlement system, especially its Appellate Body, claiming unfair treatment.

The appeals tribunal — dubbed the supreme court of world trade — has been frozen since late 2019 after the United States under president Donald Trump blocked the appointment of new judges and demanded a dramatic overhaul.

The administration of Trump’s successor President Joe Biden has indicated willingness to get the United States more involved in multilateral organisations once again.

It wants to reform the WTO, including the dispute settlement system, to make it more efficient.

But the United States has nonetheless continued blocking the selection process aimed at filling vacancies on the system’s appeals tribunal.

In a document presented at the WTO on July 5, Washington said it intends to “lead in all areas where we can contribute, including on dispute settlement reform”.

“A well-functioning dispute settlement system supports all WTO members in the resolution of their disputes in an efficient and transparent manner, and in doing so limits the needless complexity and interpretive overreach that has characterised dispute settlement in recent years,” it said.

At the end of the last WTO Ministerial Conference in June 2022, members adopted a text calling for improving all functions of the WTO, which has barely changed its rules since its creation in 1995.

It called for the dispute settlement system to be fully operational again by 2024.

The goal is to seal the agreement during the next WTO ministerial meeting, being staged in Abu Dhabi at the end of February.