Introduction to the WTO dispute settlement system

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1.4 Participants in the dispute settlement system

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Parties and third parties

The only participants in the dispute settlement system are the Member governments of the WTO), which can take part either as parties or as third parties. The WTO Secretariat, WTO observer countries, other international organizations, and regional or local governments are not entitled to initiate dispute settlement proceedings in the WTO.

The DSU sometimes refers to the Member bringing the dispute as the “complaining party” or the “complainant” (this guide mostly uses the term “complainant”). No equivalent short term is used for the “party to whom the request for consultations is addressed”. The DSU sometimes also speaks of “Member concerned”. In practice, the terms “respondent” or “defendant” are commonly used; this guide mostly uses the term “respondent”.


No non-governmental actors back to top

Since only WTO Member governments can bring disputes, it follows that private individuals or companies do not have direct access to the dispute settlement system, even if they may often be the ones (as exporters or importers) most directly and adversely affected by the measures allegedly violating the WTO Agreement. The same is true of other non-governmental organizations with a general interest in a matter before the dispute settlement system (which are often referred to as NGOs). They, too, cannot initiate WTO dispute settlement proceedings.

Of course, these organizations can, and often do, exert influence or even pressure on the government of a WTO Member with respect to the triggering of a dispute. Indeed, several WTO Members have formally adopted internal legislation under which private parties can petition their governments to bring a WTO dispute.1

There are divergent views among Members on whether non-governmental organizations may play a role in WTO dispute settlement proceedings, for example, by filing amicus curiae submissions with WTO dispute settlement bodies. According to WTO jurisprudence, panels and the Appellate Body have the discretion to accept or reject these submissions, but are not obliged to consider them.



1. For example, sections 301 et seq. of the United States Trade Act of 1974 or the Trade Barriers Regulation of the European Communitiesback to text



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This interactive training module is based on the “Handbook on the WTO Dispute Settlement System” published in 2004. The second edition of this handbook published in 2017 can be found at here.

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