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Protecting the Environment at the World Trade Organization: the Eventual ‘Greening’ of Trade?

Published on June 20, 2017        Author: 

This post is the result of work conducted for the ILA Committee on Sustainable Development and the Green Economy in International Trade Law.

In a recent post, Diane Desierto discussed the Port State Measures Agreement (‘PSMA’) and its role in attempting to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported (‘IUU’) fishing. Aside from the numerous interesting aspects of the PSMA identified in that post, the Agreement is also expected to play a key role in regulating IUU fishing beyond the law of the sea. At the World Trade Organization (‘WTO’), members are currently in negotiations to prohibit the use of subsidies which contribute to IUU fishing, as well as those that contribute to overfishing or overcapacity. While the elimination of fisheries subsidies which contribute to IUU fishing have been on the agenda of WTO members since the Doha Declaration in 2001, little progress has been made. The adoption of Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) in 2015 has changed this, giving new energy to the international community to achieve a specific set targets. Of most relevance here is SDG 14.6 which requires

‘by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.’

The objectives of SDG14.6 extend beyond subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing to include those that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. Disciplining such subsidies raises a number of challenges for the WTO. While the regulation of subsidies is a standard feature of world trade law, fisheries subsidies present unique challenges. For example, where a member considers a subsidy to harm their interests, they have two options under the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (ASCM): through direct challenge under the WTO’s dispute settlement system, or through the imposition of countervailing duties as a self-help remedy which seeks to counteract the effect of the subsidy. In each instance, the rules on subsidies seek to avoid harm to members’ interests, understood (inter alia) as injury to domestic industry, lost opportunities in third markets, or nullification or impairments of benefits.

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