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U.S. takes aim at judges pay in new attack on WTO system

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By Reuters
U.S. takes aim at judges pay in new attack on WTO system
FILE PHOTO: The World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters are pictured in Geneva, Switzerland, July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo   -   Copyright  Denis Balibouse(Reuters)

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Judges at the World Trade Organization can earn more than 300,000 Swiss francs tax-free for what is a part-time job, the United States said on Friday, in a fresh onslaught on its beleaguered arbitration system.

The Trump administration has been seeking to paralyse the WTO Appellate Body and experts say its likely demise next month is a further move away from multilateral rules designed to promote global free trade and towards a “law of the jungle”.

For two years the Trump administration has been blocking appointments to the top body that rules on trade disputes, which means it will soon have too few members – just one judge – to function at all. The terms of the other two remaining judges end on Dec. 10.

U.S. ambassador Dennis Shea raised the fresh issue of compensation at the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) on Friday. He drew ire from some members, trade officials said after the closed-door talks.

“Taken together, the amount of compensation and other payments realized per member has remained steady and at a high level – well in excess of (Swiss francs) 300,000 ($301,175) for part-time employment,” Shea said in a speech issued by the U.S. mission.

Judges rule on an average of five or six appeals per year, he said, questioning their entitlement to a year-round apartment in Geneva.

“For purposes of comparison, we understand that this compensation is significantly more than the annual salary of a WTO Deputy Director-General,” Shea said.

About 70% of initial WTO rulings are sent for review by a three-person panel of the Appellate Body, making it central to binding settlements of international disputes.

Of the 13 disputes now on its docket, only two or three are advanced, having held hearings, trade officials said.

Major trading partners took the floor to react to the U.S. remarks, trade officials said, including the European Union which told the talks: “The discussion on remuneration is only relevant if there is a functioning Appellate Body.”

China said that if there were seven judges as designed, each would earn less, and noted that they don’t receive pensions.

Norway’s delegate used a phrase from the Game of Thrones to warn of tough times ahead: “Winter is coming”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)