THE WTO AND THE ENVIRONMENT: DEVELOPMENT OF COMPETENCE BEYOND TRADE by James K. R. Watson

Review by Janet Martinez, Stanford University

This book reviews the development and influence of the WTO dispute resolution system (DSU), while also assessing the WTO’s environmental competency and the judicial issues that impede progress

The WTO and the Environment: Development of Competence Beyond Trade by James K. R. Watson, Routledge, 2013, 236 pp.

Since it was created in 1995 to manage international trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has wrestled with issues of environmental protection. Watson’s volume provides a thoughtful overview of the WTO’s legal and administrative efforts to deal with trade disputes in general, and trade-and-environmental matters in particular. The author finds a growing competence within the WTO, but still procedural and substantive barriers impede progress. The reforms he proposes address both concerns.

The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) spells out a way of handling disputes through a process that has become increasingly judicial, but is widely viewed as strong, reliable, and effective.  Its trade-expert panelists, along with an Appellate Body review, render decisions that function as “informal precedents.” Watson calls on the WTO to supplement its panelists with lawyer and scientific experts skilled in environmental matters; empower its Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) to participate in DSU cases in an advisory role; and offer access to “third parties” (i.e., other interested stakeholders) in environmental cases, in the same way that the NAFTA Commission on Environmental Cooperation does.

Watson traces the ways in which environmental concerns have been incorporated into WTO agreements, and sees momentum in favor of making explicit what has been implicit regarding the relationship between the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements, like the Basel Convention on Transboundary Waste, CITES, and the Montréal Protocol. That is, trade agreements affect environmental quality and environmental treaties can have an impact on international trade.

Given his focus on dispute system design, Watson points out the need to intervene in the WTO’s policy making efforts—writing the rule book at the Doha negotiations—as well as in the way DSU’s legal enforcement is handled. I doubt that WTO members will be willing to address environmental concerns apart from parallel demands to accommodate labor and human rights concerns as well. Nevertheless, Watson notes that if the WTO were to enact some kind of trade and environment ground rules, the CTE could transition from a political body to a much stronger implementing committee.


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