DISPUTE SETTLEMENT SYSTEM TRAINING MODULE: CHAPTER
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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The Dispute Settlement Body (DSB)
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
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
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.
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