Recent events at the World Trade Organization (WTO) illustrate how decision-making activities of its Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) can easily be derailed, notably by political frictions spilling over into its meetings. However, the rarity of instances in which the DSB found itself paralysed underlines the extent to which the WTO has developed coping mechanisms which should enable it to keep such frictions at bay and thus minimize disruptions to its continued functioning.
The penultimate DSB meeting, scheduled for March 26, 2021 was suspended due to the lack of consensus required for the adoption of its agenda. Rules applicable to DSB meetings require that its proposed agenda be adopted by consensus before a meeting can take place. The proposed agenda circulated ahead of the March 26, 2021 DSB meeting included a request by Venezuela for the establishment of a dispute settlement panel in respect of U.S. measures.
The United States objected to the inclusion of what it perceived to be an illegitimate panel request, on the grounds that representatives of the Nicolás Maduro regime do not speak on behalf of the Venezuelan people, and that this was a misuse of the WTO aimed at challenging U.S. sanctions that sought to restore human rights and democracy to Venezuela. As a result of the U.S. objection, the agenda could not be adopted and the DSB meeting could not take place. All remaining items for consideration at that DSB meeting could not move forward as long as that DSB meeting remained suspended. These included a request for the establishment of a dispute settlement panel by Australia regarding measures adopted by China in relation to barley from Australia.