Thursday, January 31, 2013

Antigua, gambling and a dispute

The US-Gambling case (DS 285) more popularly known as the Antigua case makes for an interesting case study of a WTO dispute settlement case.Yet another Caribbean country taking on the US, very similar to the rum cases that I had blogged about here. While I am not going into the legal aspects of the GATS violations in this blog post (it basically related to the interpretation of commitments that the US had undertaken under the GATS), the case brings to the fore many aspects of the nature of the dispute settlement process itself. For a brief summary of the dispute see this synopsis here.The AB essentially held that US measures of totally prohibiting online betting and gambling services of Antigua were inconsistent with the obligations it had undertaken under GATS.

Some observations about the dispute:

1. Long standing dispute - The request for consultations by Antigua was made in 2003. It is 2013 and the dispute has not reached a final conclusion to the satisfaction of the complainant even after the AB had ruled in its favor in 2007. This raises the issue of the efficacy of the dispute settlement system to provide efficacious remedies in a time-bound manner.

2. Evidence of a rule-based system - The case has been heralded by some as evidence that both smaller and large trading countries have equal rights in the system. As mentioned by Antigua's lawyer here:
"With Antigua, it’s $21 million. Maybe with China it’s going to be U.S. $21 billion. One of the messages we want to get across is that the WTO was sold to smaller countries as a level playing field and a way for them to expand the reach of commerce, subject to a set of rules that apply to everybody. I think more than anything else, this case is about fairness. The WTO is supposed to be fair.”
This goes back to the point that the dispute settlement mechanism, which is considered as as the crown jewel of the the WTO system, is based on rules and not on power politics. Countries irrespective of their trading and geo-political strength can challenge larger, more powerful trading partners at the dispute settlement. However, the inability of Antigua to meaningfully implement the WTO decision raises questions about the fairness of the system. Of what use is a rule-based system if the complainant cannot implement a decision or bear the fruits of it. Is the threat of other sanctions or the reality of trade much more overbearing that a judicial decision?

3. Landmark GATS case - This case is also considered as one of the few (there are only 23 cases that cite the GATS Agreement out of the over 400 WTO cases) cases where the commitments under the GATS were scrutinized by the dispute settlement mechanism. With services trade gaining in importance, this percentage is definitely going to grow.

4. Cross-Retaliation - The WTO has authorized Antigua to retaliate against the U.S. due to the latter's failure to comply with the decision. Antigua has threatened to retaliate in another sector - intellectual property - by ignoring copyrights of US holders by selling material on a website.This is an interesting strategy of retaliating in a sector not a subject matter of the dispute (the case was about GATS commitments, but the retaliation is proposed under copyrights) but which is a very strongly guarded right in the US. Will this strategy be used by other countries in their disputes? What implications does the suspension of obligations under TRIPS have for the legal framework that protects these rights? Shamnad Basheer has this detailed study of how a cross-retaliation model can be used by developing countries to ensure compliance in WTO cases. The USTR seemed concerned at the prospect of a suspension of obligations under TRIPS:
"The United States is concerned, however, that the Arbitrator agreed with Antigua’s request to suspend WTO concessions not just with respect to services, but also with respect to intellectual property rights (IPR).  Any authorization pursuant to the award would be strictly limited to Antigua; every other WTO Member remains obliged to protect U.S. IPR under WTO rules, including enforcement against any IPR-infringing goods.  Moreover, even with respect to Antigua, it would establish a harmful precedent for a WTO Member to affirmatively authorize what would otherwise be considered acts of piracy, counterfeiting, or other forms of IPR infringement.  Furthermore, to do so would undermine Antigua’s claimed intentions of becoming a leader in legitimate electronic commerce, and would severely discourage foreign investment in the Antiguan economy."
The Gambling case is an interesting case reflecting the many challenges that the dispute settlement mechanism faces. It also brings us back to the question as to what constitutes "compliance" in a case, which the US claims to be undertaking. We faced that in the long drawn Airbus-Boeing subsidies case too.

Shamnad Basheer has a great blogpost on the dispute on SpicyIP here.

For a different take, see Eyes on Trade blogpost which believes that this is yet another example of trampling of US domestic policy space by the WTO (after Tuna safe dolphins, COOL decision and Clove Cigarettes case) and it also sees "tiny" countries used as pawns by business interests to take on the major markets.
"The delicious and tsunami-scale irony is that now Antigua (population 88,000 and GDP $1 billion) is being "borrowed" by gambling interests to cross-retaliate against the United States - by removing intellectual property rights from U.S. products in the first use of such a sanction. Except, wait, didn't Ralph Nader warn against just this scenario of some commercial interest finding a tiny country to attack U.S. public interest policies back when the WTO was being debated?"
Another classic case study for the international trade law books?

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