Transparency at the World Trade Organization (WTO)

After years of CIEL advocacy for greater transparency at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the first-ever public viewing of WTO Appellate Body procedures took place via closed circuit broadcasting in Geneva in July 2008. Fundamentally, the case focused on whether or not WTO rules permitted Members to ban the import of beef from cattle treated with certain growth hormones. The hearings were made public at the request of the parties, as this dispute raised important procedural questions pertaining to rights and the ability of WTO Members to protect human health.

At issue was an earlier dispute that had culminated in the 1998 Appellate Body decision.  The 1998 decision determined that the European Commission’s (EC) ban on meat and meat products from cattle treated with growth hormones was inconsistent with WTO rules. The EC had applied the ban arguing that hormone-treated meat was carcinogenic. At the time, the Appellate Body found that the EC had not complied with the WTO’s requirements relating to scientific proof and risk assessment. Based on that decision, the US and Canada applied millions of US dollars’ worth of retaliatory tariffs on products from the EC.

In 2003, the EC notified the WTO that they removed the measure found in violation and adopted a new amendment pertaining to risk-assessment of hormone-treated meat. The United States and Canada continued to retaliate, and as a consequence, the EC initiated proceedings against the United States and Canada. The WTO Panel ruled that the United States and Canada violated certain procedural obligations; it also ruled that the 2003 EC measure still did not meet the scientific risk-assessment requirements under the WTO.

At the oral hearing in July 2008, the parties discussed the lack of clarity in WTO rules of dispute settlement.  In particular, the parties questioned who needed to act in order to terminate authorized retaliatory trade measures once a party claims to have come into compliance. Parties debated whether the EC ban on meat treated with growth hormones for health purposes is WTO-consistent. The EC raised concerns regarding the panel’s expert selection and the need for experts to be independent and impartial. The EC also stressed the need for WTO Members to retain the ability to set standards that are higher than unsatisfactory international standards, and defended the right of WTO Members to adopt measures that protect human health, even in presence of a scientific controversy.