Valerie Hughes, director of legal affairs at the World Trade Organisation, has been smoothing the path for the agency since its early days, says Joanne Harris
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is at the centre of making sure trade between the world’s developed and developing nations runs smoothly. Central to that process is the WTO’s disputes settlement process, which is the primary responsibility of director of legal affairs Valerie Hughes.
Hughes, a Canadian by birth and a public international lawyer by training, has been in her role for just over a year, but has been involved with the WTO for much longer. She previously served as director of the WTO’s appellate body secretariat.
Before then, Hughes was involved with developing Canada’s WTO practice – a job that was linked to the creation of the organisation in 1995.
The WTO was preceded by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt), signed in 1947 by 23 countries. In the years between Gatt’s negotiation and the introduction of the WTO lawyers were rarely in evidence.
“In the Gatt days it wasn’t really a place where lawyers had a lot of function,” explains Hughes. “Lawyers didn’t even really participate in dispute settlement – it was a diplomatic forum.”
Hughes says Canada was in the first wave of countries to realise the benefits of developing an in-house service of lawyers who could advise the state on WTO disputes. Her early experiences included acting for Canada against Australia in a case over the importing of salmon which, she admits, put her off eating the fish for a while.
More recently, a growing number of countries – including China – have begun to build their own teams of lawyers to handle WTO cases. A large part of what Hughes and her team does involves travelling around the world to educate jurisdictions on the best way to handle a WTO dispute.
“Lots of developing countries have little experience so they need some help,” Hughes says. “When we do these courses we teach the law but we also do simulations and teach them how a panel would work. The best way to learn something is to do it.”
Some latitude is given to developing countries taking their first steps in the process, which is crucial as the system is very much built around the European and North American way of resolving disputes.
“There are structural things for developing countries: we give them a little more time,” Hughes says.
She adds that China, when it joined the WTO in 2001, immediately began to use the rules of the settlement process to its advantage. Although the process is usually confidential, interested third parties can join proceedings as observers and China attached itself as a third party to every case possible.
“That was an excellent way to find out how it’s done,” Hughes adds.
It was also prescient. In the 10 years since joining the WTO, China’s position in world trade has become more important. It is involved as either a respondent or complainant in three of the eight cases filed in 2011 so far. Among upcoming cases is one against China over its export of rare earths.
Hughes predicts there will be more cases involving new technologies such as renewable energy. Exchange rates could also come under the spotlight as WTO members become frustrated with the effect pegging currencies to each other can have on international trade.
Despite the failure of the Doha round of negotiations that began in 2001, Hughes is confident the dispute settlement process has a future.
“It’s a heavily used system,” she points out, noting that some cases have been brought before the WTO that could otherwise have been fought under regional dispute settlement mechanisms.
But the WTO legal affairs team is not solely concerned with resolving disputes. Hughes and her team of 15 lawyers provide legal advice to the WTO’s director-general when needed. Topics include Palestine’s potential accession to the UN and food security issues on the G20 agenda.
The increasing number of disputes and the amount of legal work generally at the WTO means Hughes is keen to expand her capabilities.
“I’ve been pressing for a bigger team, not necessarily just in numbers but in skills,” she says.
More lawyers with a background in economics is an area Hughes believes would be helpful. Another, potentially, is the addition of paralegals.
“As disputes get busier and exhibits more voluminous, we need people to manage that end of disputes activity,” she explains.
She also believes there is scope for private practice lawyers to get more involved in WTO work, particularly advising developing nations.
“Lawyers that are specialised in this area could be helping these guys out,” Hughes concludes.
Name: Valerie Hughes
Organisation: World Trade Organisation
Position: Director of legal affairs
Reporting to: Deputy director-general Alejandro Jara
Budget: SFr196m (£139m)
Global legal capability:15