Rethinking WTO Dispute Settlement: a Unique Group of Experts Reunited to Brainstorm the Future of the WTO 

English and French closed-captions are available

The conference “Rethinking WTO Dispute Settlement” took place in Ottawa, Canada’s capital in May 2023. There were three things that we discussed first; our WTO members could reform the adjudicatory part of the deputy or dispute settlement system. The current system is in crisis, it’s not working well, so how can alternative ways to resolving disputes through an adjudication mechanism be explored? 

The second part of the conference explored how the deliberative function of the WTO can be enhanced. How disputes can already be solved as States engage in their committee work and resolve problems through notification and discussions in committees. 

The third part of the conference explored how alternative dispute resolution mechanisms could be used in order to solve disputes. Either through mediation, conciliation or other types of facilitated dispute settlement talks.  

We brought together a unique group of expert practitioners, litigators, judges, panelists, and academics to put forward ideas to help governments try to find a solution.  

As my field of expertise is international adjudication I could see this exceptionalism and I could also see the system just falling down along the past years so when Gabrielle Marceau came to me and told me it would be good that we have an opportunity of brainstorming about what can be done, if not to save the system as is, at least to have a smart evolution and to have this very rare opportunity of a meeting between practitioners, litigators, adjudicators, academics, in order to exchange ideas.  

I approach different universities in Canada, Canada being a very active player in WTO, a very optimistic and fundamentally, multilateral country, until I reach Ottawa. 

One of the things that I think really came out of this conference was the fact that we were able to bring together a wide variety of participants: practitioners, academics, diplomats, people from around the world and that’s one thing that we really value here at the University of Ottawa. I firmly believe that Innovation comes from the edges and so we want to bring people in who have different types of expertise, who can look at problems from different angles. We do this in our International Law Center, we do this in Tech Law and health law and in many of the substantive areas that we’re well known for. Another thing that is important I think as an output of this conference is that these dialogues will go on to inform policy makers, they’ll go on to affect change and so we are mobilizing the knowledge that is brought together in situations like this.  

In 2018 Canada together with 13 likeminded members of the World Trade Organization decided to create something called the “Ottawa group”. The idea of the “Ottawa group” was to first reinvigorate the negotiation function of the WTO, second to enhance its deliberation function and third, to improve its dispute settlement function. And here we are again in Ottawa, talking about how to rethink WTO dispute settlement but also to consider different ways in which we can improve the deliberative function of the WTO. 

In May 2023, over forty experts on the World Trade Organization (WTO) gathered from all over the world at the University of Ottawa to discuss the current state and future reform of the WTO dispute settlement system. The WTO dispute settlement system is currently in crisis. Its highest court, the Appellate Body (AB), has been non-functional since December 2019 because the United States has vetoed the appointment of new judges. The absence of the appeal stage also undermines dispute settlement at the WTO’s first instance, the panels, whose reports can be appealed into the void and are left in limbo. As a result, Members’ WTO commitments are left unenforceable.

At the Geneva Ministerial Declaration of June 2022, WTO Members committed themselves to work towards re-establishing a “fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system” that is “accessible to all Members” by 2024. Yet, solutions to the crisis remain elusive. 

The Ottawa symposium sought to support the efforts of reform by identifying innovative approaches to revitalize the WTO dispute settlement system. The participants included academics, practitioners, diplomates as well as former trade negotiators, panellists, Appellate Body members and WTO officials. With their diverse disciplinary and professional backgrounds, they brought together unique perspectives on potential reform of the WTO dispute settlement system.

The Conference Organizational Team consisted of 

  • Wolfgang Alschner, Associate Professor, Hyman Soloway Chair in Business and Trade Law, University of Ottawa,  
  • Gabrielle Marceau, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Geneva, and
  • Hélène Ruiz Fabri, Professor, Sorbonne Law School, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne  

The conference was held at the University of Ottawa. As Kristen Boon, Susan Perry Dellelce Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, highlighted, the conference forms part of the University of Ottawa’s efforts to bridge the gap between academia and practice and to mobilize intellectual efforts that shape public policy making.The Conference was financially supported by the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg for Procedural Law, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Hyman Soloway Chair on Business and Trade Law, the CN-Paul M. Tellier Chair on Business and Public Policy, Bennett Jones, the Canadian Council on International Law and the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

The deliberations focused on three main questions:

  1. how can WTO members reform the adjudicatory dispute settlement system? 
  1. how can the deliberative function of the WTO be enhanced? 
  1. how can alternative dispute resolution mechanisms be used to resolve trade disputes? 

The conference resulted in a Rethink WTO Dispute Settlement Report to provide policymakers with a wide range of ideas and perspectives on the potential routes of the WTO reform. Rather than formulating specific recommendations, the Report seeks to highlight and organize ideas circulating in academia and practice. The Report comprehensive described the wide range of current challenges facing WTO dispute settlement (including procedural, substantive, systematic, political and equity challenges), mapped existing reform ideas and provided structured reflections on the potential trade-offs for further reform. 

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