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WTO Dispute Settlement—Long Delays Hit the System

A recent increase in World Trade Organization (WTO) cases has strained resources in the WTO Secretariat and led to a notable slowdown in the dispute settlement process. In 2012, the WTO received the highest number of complaints in ten years, and activity remained elevated in 2013. Over the same period, the number of senior Secretariat lawyers decreased due to a policy implemented by then-Director General Pascal Lamy to freeze all staff promotions to senior grades and recruit only at junior levels.

These events have had a tangible impact on the process: The time to complete panel proceedings has increased by 50 percent—from an average of 13 months (400 days) for panels established in 2010 to an estimated 19.8 months (595 days) for those established in 2013. WTO Panel reports are now routinely issued long after the maximum duration permitted by WTO rules. The WTO Secretariat has even been forced to delay panel proceedings in at least one instance until senior lawyers become available following the completion of other disputes.

If the current delays in panel proceedings are "normalized" in the WTO system or get any worse, the WTO's reputation as an effective dispute settlement forum may be diminished. And as the negotiating arm of the WTO struggles under the shadow of Doha gridlock, effective and efficient dispute settlement is now more important than ever.

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