- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

The World Trade Organization, long the boogeyman of “anti-globalization” activists, for the first time in its 10-year history opened a dispute panel to public view, thanks to a decision by the United States, the European Union and Canada. While the droll hearings will hardly make good theater, their airing will bring greater transparency to the inscrutable institution.

The WTO’s dispute panels arbitered by anonymous officials have been the target of criticism by both liberals and conservatives because of their jurisdiction over matters broadly considered the domain of sovereign countries. WTO panels have, for example, ruled against U.S. tax breaks for exporters, thus wading into U.S. fiscal policy.

On Monday, closed-circuit television cameras were allowed into the proceedings of a case brought by the European Union, which is seeking to have $125 million in U.S. and Canadian sanctions lifted. Those sanctions were imposed in response to an EU ban on hormone-treated beef imports. The case can be watched in the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva.

WTO rules on trade disputes allow for secret tribunals, but all the parties in the hormone-treated beef case have waived that right to secrecy. The industrialized countries that advocate transparency and accountability for developing countries should routinely allow the tribunals to be viewed by the public. Unfortunately, many WTO members, mostly poorer countries, remain staunchly opposed to any change in the standing rules for the secrecy.

More positively, the WTO as an institution has allowed for some opening. Its appellate body has allowed advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations to file friend-of-the-court briefs.

WTO decisions have a broad impact on consumers and exporters. The United States, the European Union and others should push member countries to allow public scrutiny of proceedings and for an eventual change of secrecy rules — even if the cases will be watched only by the most devoted of trade observers. Closed-door trade panels provide fodder for legitimate criticism of the WTO.

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