Frequently asked questions

What is being proposed?

A conciliation and mediation facility administratively housed within the WTO with a light administrative footprint, overseen by an expert board and a financial accountability committee of donor Members. It will have three mandates:

  1. Development of model rules, modalities, and parameters
  2. Provision of mediation and conciliation services to the Members of the WTO on cost-recovery basis
  3. Training, outreach, and technical assistance

What’s the difference between Conciliation and Mediation?

Conciliation and mediation refer to the different ways Members can resolve disputes without going to litigation.

“Conciliation” and “mediation” are sometimes used in the same framework, and sometimes they are so used interchangeably. The differences between “conciliation” and “mediation” appear to be contextual or institutional rather than conceptual. At the same time, for both analytical and institution-building purposes it would be useful to maintain a distinction between the two modalities based on the nature and extent of a third-party’s engagement in the resolution of the dispute.

In this context, “conciliation” may be defined:

  • as against arbitration, as a voluntary process; and
  • as against mediation, involving third party conciliators that could variously:
    • help clarify the issues,
    • propose potential solutions for consideration by the parties,
    • serve as subject matter experts,
    • issue neutral “evaluations” of the matter before them, or
    • make recommendations.

“Mediation” is a voluntarily facilitated bilateral negotiation. The mediator acts as a “facilitator” for the negotiating parties. This could involve “relationship-building or procedural assistance”, although mediation remains fundamentally an informal process.

The mediator encourages parties to explore options they not had not been previously contemplated or propose such options. Confidentiality of the process is a key element of mediation – this is as between each party and the mediator, between the two parties, and externally.

What are the costs of conciliation or mediation?

Non-adversarial procedures such as conciliation or mediation are typically designed to last no more than two or three months, with one or two meetings between the mediator/conciliator and the parties. They are meant to be light on process, without the formalities or the volume of evidence of litigation. Trade policy officials, rather than lawyers, typically take the centre stage to find an interest-based solution to a bilateral commercial problem. For all these reasons, conciliation and mediation costs are a fraction of the costs of litigation.

Are there not cases that will inevitably end up in formal dispute resolution?

The foundational premise of alternative dispute resolution in the context of the WTO is twofold:

  1. There are trade or commercial issues that will need to be resolved through formal formal dispute resolution because of legal complexity, systemic or bilateral trade policy concerns, economic or political sensitivity, or other reasons.
  2. The vast bulk of trade and commercial issues between Members do not result in a formal dispute because Members tend to be selective and discerning about which cases they take to litigation.

Formal dispute resolution has functioned, and continues to functions, for larger economies, and in respect of politically sensitive or economically significant disputes. It is less functional and effective for less developed and most developing Members

A conciliation and mediation facility (CMF) does not compete with formal dispute resolution; properly structured, it complements the adjudicatory function.

Why not simply operationalise Article 5?

Article 5 of the DSU already provides for “good offices, conciliation and mediation”. To be invoked, Article 5 requires a request for consultations. Structurally, this is problematic, because it means that a Member must already have legal counsel, make a preliminary assessment of its legal case, and then launch a dispute against its trading partner making an allegation of treaty violation.

A properly structured conciliation and mediation facility would be available for use outside the context of a dispute. It would be an extension of diplomatic engagements, mediated by independent, third party experts, to help parties arrive at win-win solutions.

As well, unlike the panel or the Appellate Body process, and unlike all other international alternative dispute resolution frameworks, Article 5 does not set out modalities: no rules, no structures, no transparency in the choice or qualification of mediators, and no agreed principles on which conciliation or mediation would take place. Given the already overloaded agenda of the dispute settlement negotiations, it’s not practical for Members to start negotiating mediation rules of procedures, modalities, parameters, and mediator nomination, to name just a few issues that need to be sorted out.

What is the impact on multilateralism?

As a practical matter, by complementing existing mechanisms for the benefit of less developed and developing Members, and by making operational mechanisms that have so far been dormant, the CMF will be a net positive to multilateralism.

At a more conceptual level, the proposal does ask Members to have a more nuanced and innovative approach to multilateralism and dispute resolution. By ensuring close connection to the WTO framework and with Members, institutionally and substantively, the CMF would serve the interests of multilateralism.

Conciliation and Mediation have rarely been used – what makes this different?

As noted above, the structure of Article 5 is one of the reasons why conciliation and mediation have not been used in the WTO. Add to that the fact that the WTO does not provide for any structures for conciliation and mediation.

The CMF would provide a framework that could, and would, operationalise these dormant functions.

Some Members consider a binding ruling as a necessary step to effect major policy changes. How would that work within this context?

The outcome of conciliation and mediation depends on willingness to resolve a dispute bilaterally and through third-party assisted non-adversarial processes.

Conciliation and mediation are voluntary; the final agreement will be voluntary; this is the best incentive for implementation.

Some Members have had experience with WTO mediation – and it was not positive. How will this be different?

The conciliation and mediations framework of the WTO is not well-developed. The CMF seeks to respond to existing shortcomings, taking into account the experience of Members, to ensure that new procedures will, indeed, be used and appreciated both by the principal targets – developing and less developed countries – and existing users of the WTO dispute settlement framework.

There are, of course, instances – trade disputes – that are not susceptible of speedy resolution through diplomacy or conciliation and mediation. These are purely voluntary and facilitative processes and will in no way interfere with instances where a Member considers a formal dispute to be the best approach for the resolution of its matters of trade concern.

If diplomacy does not help, then how would mediation?

There are two answers to this question.

First, not all matters of trade concern end up in a formal dispute when diplomacy fails. Some are raised in committee; most go unaddressed. The CMF would provide an additional framework for the resolution of trade disputes where: diplomacy has failed to resolve a trade irritant; the irritant continues to affect bilateral relations; and the complaining Member assesses that launching a dispute is not in its national interest.

Second, this paper hypothesizes that for these types of disputes, conciliation and mediation might well form a viable path to the resolution and settlement because third-party non-adversarial processes:

  • represent an escalation from bilateral diplomacy without plunging the parties into legal and juridical procedures and engagements; and
  • can be valuable in itself in clarifying issues of a commercial nature, and focusing minds and attention on the most salient problems that are capable of resolution, rather than win-loss findings of legal violation. 

The presence of a disinterested third-party can in principle help disputing parties:

  • correct, to some extent, an imbalance of power between them in a purely diplomatic context;  
  • establish an agreed or common understanding of the underlying facts that could form the basis of settlement negotiations;  
  • identify potential win-win solutions that may not be apparent to them, given each party’s incomplete information about the other’s position, or given parties’ entrenched focus on “rights” or “legal positions” rather than “solutions” and “interests”; and 
  • provide a degree of external pressure on responding countries – in the form of a credible solution with some authority behind it – that may help them to overcome internal blockages to a negotiated outcome. 

There is quantifiable value in third party non-adversarial approaches: where mediation exists, 80% of disputes are resolved.

What if the question at issue is the interpretation of a legal obligation?

Where a concern is purely legal and the issue may be characterised as systemic, then a formal dispute may be inevitable. The proposed CMF would not prevent Members from doing so. Mediated settlement generally works better where the core concern is commercial.

Nevertheless, where even where the core question is the legal interpretation of an untested provision, conciliation – in the form of engaging a neutral third-party expert to assess the question and advise the disputing parties in a confidential, non-binding framework – may well give the disputing parties additional information to help settle their dispute.

Some domestic processes – such as antidumping investigations – are subject to domestic procedural rules and no implementation is possible without a panel report. How could conciliation and mediation be useful in this context?

Where there is no discretion at all in a process, then no diplomatic resolution is possible. In that case, a disagreement will either result in a dispute or frustration for the Member that has a complaint but that, for resource or other reasons is not in a position to launch a complaint.

Conciliation and mediation are facilitated diplomacy. On the whole, the assumption is that where a particular commercial concern is not of a nature to result in a formal dispute, third-party assisted non-adversarial processes could help address commercial problems and reduce trade tensions between Members.

At which point could the process be launched? That is, is there going to be interference with WTO dispute settlement?

A properly functioning CMF would be available to Members throughout the life of a commercial problem. Ideally, it is a dispute avoidance mechanism, to enable Members to address matters of trade concern that have not been resolved bilaterally through third-party assisted non-adversarial processes.

Of course, where, in the course of an active dispute, Members consider that conciliation or mediation would be useful, they could either go through Article 5 (requiring ad hoc negotiation of rules) or use the CMF’s already developed procedures.