Wednesday, January 11, 2012

WTO control over domestic policy?

The interplay of WTO and its impact on domestic law making and policy space has been a subject matter of debate ever since the institution has been created. What are the limits of domestic laws vis vis international treaty obligations? Does the WTO impinge on domestic sovereignty?


An interesting piece in the Washington Post attributes two decisions (Tuna  and COOL decisions) of the WTO to have impinged on U.S domestic policy. Both pertained to labelling requirements under U.S domestic law. Both the decisions of the WTO were against the United States.

The piece highlights the tension between domestic food safety norms and international trade obligations. The WTO decision has been viewed as an illegitimate "control" over what is essentially domestic policy space of deciding the rules of the game. However, this is what the member countries have essentially agreed to - that the WTO would be an "international", "neutral" arbiter of disputes related to trade between countries. To what extent that arbitrage impinges domestic policy space depends on facts of each case. Instead of questioning the WTO as an institution that can "control" domestic policy it would be more fruitful to use the various Agreements of the WTO to address domestic concerns and "protect" (not to be confused with "protectionism") one's national interest within permissible international obligations. Achieving this balance is tougher than alleging loss of domestic sovereignty!

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