African bloc within WTO joins majority opposing US veto power

Large majority of member states are calling for end to Washington's ability to nix judicial appointments at trade court.

    WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meet at the WTO, where the US can still wield its veto over trade-court appointments [Salvatore Di Nolfi/Reuters]
    WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meet at the WTO, where the US can still wield its veto over trade-court appointments [Salvatore Di Nolfi/Reuters]

    African countries have joined the list of nations seeking an end to a United States veto on judicial appointments at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

    A statement from the African Group of 43 countries that was circulated on Wednesday confirms a large majority of WTO member states now openly oppose the US position. Of the WTO's 163 member countries, 114 have now explicitly called for an immediate end to the US veto.

    The US is blocking new appointments because it says members of the WTO's Appellate Body, the world's top trade court, have strayed from their role, overstepped their mandate, and broken their own procedural rules.

    Critics say that US President Donald Trump wants to neutralise the court because it can override US law, and that US officials want revenge for a series of rulings that went against US tariffs.

    Most nations in Africa had previously been silent on the issue.

    While the shift in arithmetic does not affect the US right to wield its veto, it shows Washington is becoming increasingly isolated in its position.

    'Enforcing their rights'

    The Appellate Body needs three members to hear each appeal in international trade disputes. But after term expirations in December 11, it will be down to one member, meaning countries may be able to avoid trade enforcement because any appealed dispute would go into legal limbo.

    "The African Group is acutely aware that an urgent solution is required to ensure the effective functioning of the WTO's Appellate Body as a legitimate forum where all Members can exercise equal opportunity in enforcing their rights," the African Group said in the statement.

    "We urge [WTO] members to engage in a solution-based approach and call on members to fill the vacancies on the Appellate Body immediately."

    Of the African Group's several dozen nations, only South Africa, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia have been directly involved in any of the 584 disputes brought to the WTO since it was established in 1995.

    Trade experts say the dispute system supports the whole of the WTO, and there would be little point in negotiating new rules if there were no effective enforcement mechanism.

    African countries had been largely absent from the debate, since only five have signed a 76-country petition regularly raised at monthly WTO dispute-settlement meetings.

    The African Group also suggested several rule changes to ensure the system keeps working. Some of them were similar to proposals coming from the European Union.

    The group proposed increasing the number of Appellate Body members from seven to nine, introducing nonrenewable seven-year terms, allowing members to finish ongoing cases for two years after their terms ended, and giving them more time to complete each case.

    The African Group also proposed automatically launching the selection of a new judge at least three months before an incumbent's term expires.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency