At the heart of the WTO system is the commitment to the foundational principles of MFN and national treatment. But in a world predicated upon national interest and economic power, the most powerful may not consider multilateral rule-based commitments to be optimal to the achievement of their national interests. One feature of the WTO dispute settlement system is that every Member of the WTO is entitled to have their dispute determined under agreed rules. This is a basic feature of rules-based dispute settlement. The rules, impartially applied, have no regard to the economic power of the parties. The settlement of disputes by recourse to rules of general application yield outcomes that do not depend upon which member is more powerful.
This week, we offer an exciting treat to followers of the Afronomicslaw Blog! We are bringing the discussions on reform at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to you, from a unique “Global South” perspective. As WTO Members struggle to find solutions to the impasse in the selection process for appointing Appellate Body Members, and as concerns abound about the ability of the WTO to successfully navigate new issues confronting the multilateral trading system, I approached the editors of Afronomicslaw with the idea of dedicating a symposium to views of developing countries on the topic of WTO reform. Thankfully, they were receptive, and I am proud to count among this week’s contributors: a former Appellate Body Member, WTO law academics, and practitioners hailing from Africa, India and the Caribbean.
One would be justified in thinking that AU member states have intentionally created a court which they consciously know they would hardly use given the inertia identified above. If the reforms that would extend standing to private parties are not undertaken, there is little guarantee that Member States will suddenly change their habits. Assuming for once that they trigger the mechanism, it is also very likely that, consistent with their practice for political solutions to legal problems, they would not proceed beyond the consultation and good offices stages provided in Articles 7 and 8 of the Dispute Settlement Protocol.
Even setting aside funding issues, the failure to creatively blend the dispute settlement mechanisms that already exist at the sub-regional level with what has worked with disputes in the global trading system is perhaps the biggest handicap the new dispute settlement system established by the AfCFTA is likely to suffer. There is certainly no harm in trying to out this system, but because most of the experience and expertise in handling trade disputes and matters has been at the sub-regional level, the new AfCFTA Dispute Resolution Mechanism has a lot to learn from the sub-regional level.
The AfCFTA is thus a positive development for Africa as it seeks to advance its own interests through intra-African trade. For a region of the world that contributes to only about 3% of global trade, increasing intra-African trade is a laudable project. For example, while intra-Asia and intra-Europe trade account for 59 per cent and 69 per cent of exports respectively, intra-African trade accounts for only 18 per cent of total exports. However, despite the modest successes at improving intra-African trade through the eight African Union-recognized regional trade agreements on the continent, there are genuine apprehensions regarding the viability of the proposed AfCFTA.