The World Trade Organization sounds like a legitimate international organization, but it is not. The WTO operates in secret, by hand-picked delegates from around the world. Cases are determined by “judges” selected for one case even if they have conflicts of interest. WTO decisions make a mockery of U.S. and European laws designed to protect the health of consumers and the environment. The WTO is unfair, unethical and undemocratic and needs to be overhauled.
On May 18, 2015 a WTO panel ruled that the United States Country of Origin Labeling Act (COOL) was an illegal non-tariff barrier. COOL requires grocery stores to label produce, fish and meat with their country of origin. The WTO appointed three “judges” to decide whether the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling Act constitutes a barrier to free trade. The head of the panel was Recardo Ramírez-Hernández, 46, not a disinterested party. Also on the panel with Ramírez-Hernández was Seung What Chang, 52, a Korean national and Peter Van Den Bossche, a 56-year old Belgian. The panel is relatively young, compared to the United States Senate, and all members are from small nations.
The dispute was brought by Mexico and Canada claiming that by requiring Mexican and Canadian meat to be marked “product of Mexico” or “product of Canada” wrongfully discriminates against those nations. This is a bull-dung of a claim.
WTO court appointees should not be allowed to be partisans who have represented one county involved in the trade disputes. The panel chair was Ricardo Ramírez-Hernández, a Mexican citizen who has represented Mexico in trade matters. Ramírez-Hernández holds the chair of International Trade Law at the Mexican National University in Mexico City. He was head of the International Trade Practice for Latin America of an international law firm in Mexico City. His practice focused on issues related to NAFTA and trade across Latin America, including international trade dispute resolution.
Prior to practicing with a law firm, Ramírez-Hernández was deputy general counsel for Trade Negotiations of the Ministry of Economy in Mexico for more than a decade. Ramírez-Hernández represented Mexico in international trade litigation and investment arbitration proceedings. He acted as lead counsel to the Mexican government in several WTO disputes. He has also served on NAFTA panels.
Quite simply, Ramirez-Hernandez should not have been allowed to serve on the appellate panel in a case involving Mexico. The WTO should have a system for parties to raise conflict of interest and ethical matters to disqualify a judge, like the system used by U.S. courts.
Even with a biased group, the WTO appellate panel recognized that the “COOL measure is an internal measure of the United States, as opposed to a customs or border measure. It requires retailers in the United States to affix labels providing country of origin information on certain products. This obligation applies irrespective of whether the products are imported or domestically produced.” The panel went on over 176 pages of legal gobbledygook to explain how the burden from Canadian and Mexican companies to comply with the U.S. law constituted a barrier to trade.
President John F. Kennedy said, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.”
WTO proceedings are now secret. This is repugnant to those living in free and open societies. No members of the press or outside parties are allowed to watch or listen to court proceedings. WTO proceedings should not be secret, they should be open to the public as court proceedings are in most democracies.
U.S. consumers have a right to know where their food comes from for health and other reasons. Congress declared that right when it enacted the Country of Origin Labeling Act. If Canada has mad cow disease, or Guatemala has contaminated raspberries, consumers should have the tools to be able to avoid these products.
The United States should get out of the World Trade Organization, a phony group dominated by small countries with a grudge against the United States. Instead, the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives bowed down to the WTO and voted to repeal the Country of Origin Labeling Act for meat products. I call upon Congress and the president to ignore the WTO ruling and keep the Country of Origin Labeling Act in force.
Joseph is chairman of the Made in the USA Foundation.