Clash at WTO on Consensus


A clash of perspectives on the continuation of “consensus-based decision-making” surfaced at the World Trade Organization, after a group of countries floated a proposal on “responsible consensus,” which was earlier echoed by the United States, said people familiar with the development.

Two proposals on “consensus-based decision-making” have been floated for further discussion at the upcoming WTO’s General Council meeting on May 22.

In a document issued by the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group on May 7 (WT/GC/W/932) titled, “Preserving the Current Practice of Consensus-based Decision-Making in the WTO,” a strong case is made as to why there can be no departure from the existing practice of consensus-based decision-making that provides “equity” to all members.

The second proposal circulated by eight countries – Costa Rica, Gambia. Korea, Norway, Peru, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan – (WT/GC/W/933) titled, “Responsible Consensus”, called for re-committing “to uphold the practice of consensus in a responsible manner in order to ensure that the WTO remains as the cornerstone of the rules-based multilateral trading system, and maintains its relevance by delivering shared prosperity for all its Members.”

US Support Expected

Although the United States did not sign on to the proposal on responsible consensus, US trade envoy to the WTO Ambassador Maria Pagan had earlier echoed the need for responsible consensus to avoid gridlock on several issues. She had reportedly said responsible consensus would enable countries to avoid gridlock through “responsible” consensus, describing it as “the ability to say something that maybe I don’t care that much about, but it doesn’t hurt me. And I’m not gonna hold it back as a chip... until I get... what I want.”

A blog post on “Responsible Consensus at the WTO Can Save the Global Trading system”, posted on the website of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations on January 22, quoted Ambassador Pagan as saying that important allies like the United Kingdom support “the spirit of collaboration and responsible consensus so as to ensure that MC13 builds on the success of MC12.”

Against this backdrop, it may not be out of place to suggest that the United States will not be uncomfortable in supporting the proposal by eight countries when it comes up for discussion at the GC meeting on 22 May, said people familiar with the two proposals.

Developments at the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference – particularly when India blocked the non-mandated plurilateral Joint Statement Initiative on Investment Facilitation for Development – may have contributed to raising the issue of responsible consensus all over again, said people who asked not to be quoted.

The issue of adopting decisions based on responsible consensus failed to gather consensus in the run-up to MC13.

It appears that Singapore is planning to host a retreat to advance some of these issues before the summer break, said people familiar with the development.

ACP Proposal

To start with, the ACP proposal reiterated that “Article IX, paragraph 1 of the Marrakesh

Agreement establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO) states that "The WTO shall continue the practice of decision-making by consensus followed under GATT 1947.”

It noted that “except as otherwise provided, where a decision cannot be arrived at by consensus, the matter at issue shall be decided by voting. At meetings of the Ministerial Conference and the General Council, each Member of the WTO shall have one vote."

More importantly, according to the ACP proposal, “the principle of consensus-based decision making represents a tradition that goes back three-quarters of a century in the multilateral trading system and thus can be seen as part of not only treaty law, but also customary international law as verified by constant practice.”

The group says, “among international organizations, the WTO stands out as one of the few that allows each of its Members, irrespective of its size or level of development, the wherewithal to secure certain outcomes in its interests through consensus-based decision-making.”

In contrast, “other key international organizations rely on power dynamics or other approaches such as quota-based systems as the basis for decision-making.”

The ACP group argued that “the Marrakesh Agreement does not qualify consensus with terms


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