WTO faces crisis over disputes settlement

The appellate branch of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body had been a target of US criticism before President Donald Trump took office. (Reuters/File)
Updated 08 December 2019

WTO faces crisis over disputes settlement

  • Trump’s trade team has both extended that policy and escalated the fight

GENEVA: The World Trade Organization’s capacity to settle international disputes, a core function throughout the body’s 25-year history, is on the brink of collapse following relentless US opposition.

The appellate branch of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), sometimes dubbed the supreme court of world trade, was a target of US criticism before President Donald Trump took office.

His predecessor Barack Obama’s administration began a policy of blocking the appointment of appeals judges over concerns that their rulings violated American interests.

Trump’s trade team has both extended that policy and escalated the fight.

Barring a shock breakthrough in the coming days, the court will cease functioning on Wednesday.

The WTO appellate branch normally counts seven judges but has just three left — the minimum required to hear an appeal. Two more judges are due to retire on Tuesday.

WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo warned on Friday that the organization was facing a stark choice.

“You could restore the impartial, effective, efficient two-step review that most members say they want,” he said.

“Alternatively, your choices could open the door to more uncertainty, unconstrained unilateral retaliation — and less investment, less growth, and less job creation.” Various reform proposals have secured broad support.

But according to EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, there can no solution without US buy-in because the WTO works on consensus.

“This is a dispute between the 163 members of the WTO and the US,” she told the European Parliament last month.

US WTO envoy Dennis Shea argued on Friday that Washington had “engaged constructively over the past year” to resolve the crisis, but would not relent until its concerns were fixed.

“This is not an academic question; we will not be able to move forward until we are confident we have addressed the underlying problems and have found real solutions to prevent their recurrence,” he told a WTO meeting.

US concerns regarding the WTO appeals court include allegations of judicial overreach, delays in rendering decisions and bloated judges’ salaries.

But top American trade officials have also insisted that the US Constitution does not permit a foreign court to supersede an American one — and that WTO appellate judges assert such superiority in international trade law.

Washington reportedly threatened to block the WTO’s 2020 budget over the dispute, raising the prospect of a Jan. 1 shutdown.

The US ultimately backed a provisional budget compromise on Thursday but it included substantial appellate body cuts.

“There is no question the Trump administration has killed the appellate body,” said Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council of Foreign Relations think tank. “That was its intention, and it has succeeded.”

The appellate body’s demise will place international trade disputes in legal limbo.

Countries will still be able to file grievances and dispute panels can issue rulings, but nations unhappy with those rulings can simply delay enforcement by filing an appeal to a non-functioning court.

The EU, Canada and others have reaffirmed their commitment to a two-step dispute process, arguing that the right of appeal is essential in any legal system.

Brussels and Ottawa have agreed to set up a temporary appellate process, which mirrors the WTO court, and would handle any bilateral disputes that arise during the impasse. Norway has joined that accord.

Leading WTO members also say they are open to wider reform.

“We have made clear that we are fully committed to tackling the root causes of the discontent around the existing system,” the EU ambassador to the WTO Aguiar Machado told AFP.

Another Western diplomat who requested anonymity told AFP the EU was willing to tackle concerns about the court’s “excesses” but said the US must first agree to begin recruiting new judges — a non-starter for Washington.

Some have suggested that a solution might have to wait until after next year’s presidential election in the US.

In the meantime, the WTO has been left diminished.

Since its founding in 1995, the organization has been tasked with promoting liberal international trade through a rules-based system backed by a dispute settlement process.

Trade promotion has faltered as the body has struggled to agree any major new deals and Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations predicted: “There will never be another big, liberalising trade round.”

Certainly, court-backed rule enforcement appears certain to suffer a heavy blow next week.


Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

Updated 20 February 2020

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

  • Human and artificial intelligence are racing ahead to detect and control outbreaks of infectious disease

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?

In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.

Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments to save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.

What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.

For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It is difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.

The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.

Early warning systems that scansocial media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.

“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”

The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.

Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.

ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first
notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.

Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there is almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.

“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.

Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques are not so novel.

“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”

Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.

Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of the tick-borne Lyme disease.

Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.