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Trade

US forces standstill of WTO appeals body

Lack of judges leaves 14 trade cases hanging in the balance

A traffic signal outside the WTO headquarters in Geneva. The U.S. has vetoed appointments of appellate judges at the WTO since 2017.   © Reuters

GENEVA/TOKYO -- The World Trade Organization ceased to function in any meaningful way Wednesday due to the U.S.'s refusal to approve replacement judges to its top appellate body, making it unable rule on any trade disputes.

What is supposed to be a seven-member roster of jurists shrank to just one on Wednesday. Three judges are needed to review cases, meaning that 14 trade disputes already filed are currently up in the air, with one revolving around India's tariffs against Japanese steel imports.

Appointments of new judges to replace those whose terms have expired generally require unanimous approval from WTO members. But the U.S. has vetoed nominations since 2017, in keeping with the protectionism embraced by President Donald Trump, claiming that the WTO's appellate body oversteps its authority by interpreting American laws.

The number of disputes before the WTO has increased with the volume of global trade. The body reviewed an average of 15 cases a month in 2009, but the case load has roughly tripled since then.

WTO members are scrambling to find ways to reform the appeals process. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi described the changes as an "urgent matter to be addressed," in a statement released Wednesday.

Japan and Australia jointly presented a set of proposals this April for revamping the appellate body. The WTO is due to address reforms at a ministerial meeting next June.

Ahead of next summer's gathering, Japan is determined to take a stronger lead in discussions among members "with a view to achieving substantial progress on various areas of the WTO reform," Motegi said.

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