Seals and the Need for more Deference to Vienna by WTO Adjudicators

Häberli, Christian (8 July 2014). Seals and the Need for more Deference to Vienna by WTO Adjudicators (SIEL Online Proceedings Working Paper 2014/22). Society of International Economic Law

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This paper asks how World Trade Organization (WTO) panels and the Appellate Body (AB) take public international law (PIL) into account when interpreting WTO rules as a part of international economic law (IEL). Splendid isolation of the latter is not new; indeed it is intended by the negotiators of the Understanding on the Settlement of Disputes (DSU).
At the same time, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) is quite clear when it provides the general rules and the supplementary means of treaty interpretation. Despite such mandatory guidance, WTO adjudicators (when given a choice and assuming they see the conflict) prefer deference to WTO law over deference to Vienna and take a dogmatic way out of interpretation quandaries.
The AB and panels make abundant reference to Vienna, though less so to substantive PIL. Often times, however, they do so simply in order to buttress their findings of violations of WTO rules. Perhaps tellingly, however, none of the reports in EC – Seals contains even a single mention of VCLT, despite numerous references to international standards addressing indigenous rights and animal welfare.
In the longer term, and absent a breakthrough on the negotiation front, this pattern of carefully eschewing international treaty law and using PIL just for the sake of convenience could have serious consequences for the credibility and acceptance of the multilateral trading system. Following the adage ‘negotiate or litigate’ recourse to WTO dispute settlement increases when governments are less ready to make treaty commitments commensurate with the challenges of globalisation.
This is true even for ‘societal choice’ cases on the margins of classic trade disputes. We will argue here that it is precisely for cases such as these that VCLT and PIL should be used more systematically by panels and the AB. Failing that, instead of building bridges for more coherent international regulation, WTO adjudicators could burn those same bridges which the DSU interpretation margin leaves open for accomplishing their job which is to find a ‘positive solution’. Worse, judicial incoherence could return to WTO dispute settlement like a boomerang and damage the credibility and thus the level of acceptance of the multilateral trading system per se.

Item Type:

Working Paper


02 Faculty of Law > Department of Economic Law > World Trade Institute
10 Strategic Research Centers > World Trade Institute

02 Faculty of Law > Department of Economic Law > NCCR International Trade Regulation

UniBE Contributor:

Häberli, Christian


300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 340 Law
300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 380 Commerce, communications & transportation


SIEL Online Proceedings Working Paper


Society of International Economic Law


[4] Swiss National Science Foundation


[UNSPECIFIED] NCCR Trade Regulation




Christian Häberli

Date Deposited:

12 Feb 2015 12:09

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 14:40




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