WTO Bodies involved in the dispute settlement process

The operation of the (WTO) dispute settlement process involves the parties and third parties to a case, the DSB panels, the Appellate Body, the WTO Secretariat, arbitrators, independent experts and several specialized institutions. This chapter gives an introduction to the WTO bodies involved in the dispute settlement system. The involvement of the parties and third parties, the primary participants in a dispute settlement proceeding, has already been outlined here. The precise tasks and roles of each of the actors involved in the dispute settlement process will become clear in the later chapter on the stages of the dispute settlement process.

Among the WTO bodies involved in dispute settlement, one can distinguish between a political institution, the DSB, and independent, quasi-judicial institutions such as panels, the Appellate Body and arbitrators.

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3.1 The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB)

Functions and composition

The General Council discharges its responsibilities under the DSU through the DSB (Article IV:3 of the WTO Agreement). Like the General Council, the DSB is composed of representatives of all WTO Members. These are governmental representatives, in most cases diplomatic delegates who reside in Geneva (where the WTO is based) and who belong to either the trade or the foreign affairs ministry of the WTO Member they represent. As civil servants, they receive instructions from their capitals on the positions to take and the statements to make in the DSB. As such, the DSB is a political body.

The DSB is responsible for administering the DSU, i.e. for overseeing the entire dispute settlement process.

The DSB has the authority to establish panels, adopt panel and Appellate Body reports, maintain surveillance of implementation of rulings and recommendations and authorize the suspension of obligations under the covered agreements (Article 2.1 of the DSU). A later chapter on the stages of the dispute settlement procedure will explain exactly what all these actions mean. In less technical terms, the DSB is responsible for the referral of a dispute to adjudication (establishing a panel); for making the adjudicative decision binding (adopting the reports); generally, for supervising the implementation of the ruling; and for authorizing “retaliation” when a Member does not comply with the ruling.

The DSB meets as often as is necessary to adhere to the time-frames provided for in the DSU (Article 2.3 of the DSU). In practice, the DSB usually has one regular meeting per month. When a Member so requests, the Director-General convenes additional special meetings. The staff of the WTO Secretariat provides administrative support for the DSB (Article 27.1 of the DSU).


Decision-making in the DSB back to top

The general rule is for the DSB to take decisions by consensus (Article 2.4 of the DSU). Footnote 1 to Article 2.4 of the DSU defines consensus as being achieved if no WTO Member, present at the meeting when the decision is taken, formally objects to the proposed decision. This means that the chairperson does not actively ask every delegation whether it supports the proposed decision, nor is there a vote. On the contrary, the chairperson merely asks, for example, whether the decision can be adopted and if no one raises their voice in opposition, the chairperson will announce that the decision has been taken or adopted. In other words, a delegation wishing to block a decision is obliged to be present and alert at the meeting, and when the moment comes, it must raise its flag and voice opposition. Any Member that does so, even alone, is able to prevent the decision.

However, when the DSB establishes panels, when it adopts panel and Appellate Body reports and when it authorizes retaliation, the DSB must approve the decision unless there is a consensus against it (Articles 6.1, 16.4, 17.14 and 22.6 of the DSU). This special decision-making procedure is commonly referred to as “negative” or “reverse” consensus. At the three mentioned important stages of the dispute settlement process (establishment, adoption and retaliation), the DSB must automatically decide to take the action ahead, unless there is a consensus not to do so. This means that one sole Member can always prevent this reverse consensus, i.e. it can avoid the blocking of the decision (being taken). To do so that Member merely needs to insist on the decision to be approved.

No Member (including the affected or interested parties) is excluded from participation in the decision-making process. This means that the Member requesting the establishment of a panel, the adoption of the report or the authorization of the suspension of concessions can ensure that its request is approved by merely placing it on the agenda of the DSB. In the case of the adoption of panel and Appellate Body reports, there is at least one party which, having prevailed in the dispute, has a strong interest in the adoption of the report(s). In other words, any Member intending to block the decision to adopt the report(s) has to persuade all other WTO Members (including the adversarial party in the case) to join its opposition or at least to stay passive. Therefore, a negative consensus is largely a theoretical possibility and, to date, has never occurred. For this reason, one speaks of the quasi-automaticity of these decisions in the DSB. This contrasts sharply with the situation that prevailed under GATT 1947 when panels could be established, their reports adopted and retaliation authorized only on the basis of a positive consensus. Unlike under GATT 1947, the DSU thus provides no opportunity for blockage by individual Members in decision-making on these important matters. Negative consensus applies nowhere else in the WTO decision-making framework other than in the dispute settlement system.

When the DSB administers the dispute settlement provisions of a plurilateral trade agreement (of Annex 4 of the WTO Agreement), only Members that are parties to that agreement may participate in decisions or actions taken by the DSB with respect to disputes under these agreements (Article 2.1 of the DSU).

With respect to the more operational aspects of the DSB’s work, the Rules of Procedure for Meetings of the DSB1 provide that the Rules of Procedure for Sessions of the Ministerial Conference and Meetings of the General Council2 apply, subject to a few special rules on the chairperson and except as otherwise provided in the DSU. An important organizational aspect of these general rules is the requirement for Members to file items to be included on the agenda of an upcoming meeting no later than on the working day before the day on which the notice of the meeting is to be issued, which is at least ten calendar days before the meeting (Rule 3 of the Rules of Procedure). In practice, this means that items for the agenda must be made on the 11th day before the DSB meeting, and on the 12th or 13th day if the 11th day were to fall on a Saturday or Sunday.


Role of the chairperson back to top

The DSB has its own chairperson, who is usually one of the Geneva-based ambassadors, i.e. a chief of mission of a Member’s permanent representation to the WTO (Article IV:3 of the WTO Agreement). The chairperson is appointed by a consensus decision of the WTO Members. The chairperson of the DSB has mainly procedural functions, that is, passing information to the Members, chairing the meeting, calling up and introducing the items on the agenda, giving the floor to delegations wishing to speak, proposing and, if taken, announcing the requested decision. The chairperson of the DSB is also the addressee of the Members’ communications to the DSB.

In addition, the chairperson has several responsibilities in specific situations. For instance, the chairperson determines, upon request by a party and in consultation with the parties to the dispute, the rules and procedures in disputes involving several covered agreements with conflicting “special or additional rules and procedures” if the parties cannot agree on the procedure within 20 days (Article 1.2 of the DSU). The chairperson can also be authorized by the DSB to draw up special terms of reference pursuant to Article 7.3 of the DSU. The DSB chairperson is further entitled to extend, after consultation with the parties, the time-period for consultations involving a measure taken by a developing country Member, if the parties cannot agree that the consultations have concluded (Article 12.10 of the DSU). In dispute settlement cases involving a least-developed country Member, the least-developed country can request the DSB chairperson to offer his/her good offices, conciliation and mediation before the case goes to a panel (Article 24.2 of the DSU). Lastly, the DSB chairperson is to be consulted before the Director-General determines the composition of the panel under Article 8.7 of the DSU, and before the Appellate Body adopts or amends its Working Procedures (Article 17.9 of the DSU).



1. WT/DSB/9,16 January 1997  back to text

2. WT/L/161, 25 July 1996  back 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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