Mexico rejects US compliance panel request in tuna case

29 April 2016

The US-Mexico dispute on “dolphin-safe” tuna labelling continued on last week, after Mexico City rejected Washington’s first request for another compliance panel process to evaluate the recent March 2016 revision to its labelling policies.

Earlier this month, the US asked that a compliance panel review the latest changes to Washington’s “dolphin-safe” tuna labelling regime, which were announced in March. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 April 2016) [Editor's note, Bridges Weekly is ICTSD's flagship publication for trade news]

At the time, the US explained that the revisions were meant to bring its previous labelling measure in line with global trade rules, which it argues warrants the establishment of another compliance panel. (See Bridges Weekly, 24 March 2016)

However, Mexico rejected the request during Friday’s DSB meeting, citing a series of procedural concerns over the US move – particularly since the case has already gone to arbitration. The ensuring discussion, source familiar with the meeting told Bridges, was whether arbitration should proceed in light of a new compliance panel process, or whether a compliance panel should wait until the arbiter circulates its decision.

The two North American countries sparred also over whether establishing such a compliance panel would slow down an already prolonged case – going back to 2008 – or, as the US argued, “best facilitate” resolving the row.

Mexico, for its part, argues that starting yet another compliance panel process could have larger systemic implications, essentially allowing for members to delay “ad infinitum” dispute settlement proceedings and prevent the actual suspension of concessions.

Other disagreements aired during Friday’s meeting included whether consultations were needed between the two trading partners before such a compliance panel request, as Mexico claims, and whether the US’ request is in line with the terms of a “sequencing agreement” between the two sides.

The US confirmed that it will now ask for a special DSB meeting so it can table its second compliance panel request on the subject.

The long-running dispute between the two members (DS381) dates back to 2008, with the WTO’s Appellate Body confirming in 2012 that the US’ dolphin-safe labelling regime was discriminating unfairly against tuna and tuna products imported from Mexico. (See Bridges Weekly, 16 May 2012)

The US revised the measure in 2013. However, both a compliance panel and the Appellate Body deemed that the changes were insufficient to bring the policy in line with global trade rules – prompting Mexico to ask for permission to suspend concessions against the US, with Washington then objecting to the level of suspension.  At the DSB meeting last month, it was agreed that “the matter is referred to arbitration.” So far there is no announcement on the WTO website on the constitution of the arbitrator.

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