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Written by:
Prachi Sethi
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The WTO is a standardized treaty regime which deals with its members' trade and economic ties. The mechanism of dispute resolution exists for the purpose of settling conflicts pertaining to obligations under the arrangements protected by the WTO, and it is not an international court of general jurisdiction. The Appellate Body has acknowledged that, in 'clinical isolation' in public international law, the WTO Agreement does not operate. Recognizing this, the Appellate Body obtained guidance from public international law in the understanding and implementation of WTO obligations.

Public international law, including other conventions and legislative instruments in place between the states, has also been referred to by the Appellate Body when interpreting provisions of the WTO Agreement. In line with the customary principles of application of public international law, Article 3(2) Direct Panels of the Appellate Body 'to clarify the current provisions of those conventions' and Articles 31 and 32 of the Vienna Convention, have been regularly used as an instrument to interpret those obligations. All the Articles of the DSU and the Vienna Convention mentioned above does not provide that all international legal obligations in force between two States must be examined and applied by a treaty interpreter determining whether WTO member has acted consistently with its obligations under the WTO agreement. In a conflict brought under the WTO Agreement, certain terms do not define the relevant statute. Rather, a system of interpretation of the terms of a treaty is set out.

States may contract out, in their treaty relationships, all the rules of general international law (other than those of jus cogens) out of one, more or, in theory, but they cannot contract out from the framework of international law. Jus co gens are those fundamental norms of public international law having an overriding effect and which cannot be neglected while making of any new treaty or any other international agreements.  Jus cogens and WTO agreement are related in a way that firstly since WTO is itself a treaty it cannot override these peremptory norms, secondly all the trade related multilateral or bi-lateral agreements entered under the supervision of WTO will also be held to be invalid if they are contravening to jus cogens. For example, the jus cogens discourages slavery contracts between two countries as it is against human rights so if say two countries sign a bilateral trade agreement related to a slavery contract or labour contract under the supervision of the WTO it will eventually be held to be invalid as it is contravening these peremptory norms of jus cogens. As soon as states contract with each other, they do so within the framework of international law, immediately and necessarily. WTO rules are thus rules of international law that, in certain respects, constitute special law in relation to certain rules of general international law.

However, this does not mean that, in contrast to all the codes of international law, WTO rules are specific regulations. WTO rules govern the relationship of trade between states (as well as separate customs territories). Nevertheless, in today's increasingly interdependent society, a considerable number, if not most, state laws influence trade flows between states in one way or another. The WTO laws, which are essentially aimed at liberalizing trade, thus having a potential effect on nearly all other sectors of society and law. Liberalizing trade, for instance, can also threaten protection for the environment or human rights. Similarly, the implementation of respect for human rights or environmental standards may often cause trade barriers to be introduced. Moreover, in search of all sorts of non-trade goals, from protection for human rights and the environment to confirmation of national boundaries, trade controls are constantly being used. Such a resort provides an immense potential for interaction with WTO rules and other rules of international law, as virtually all other rules of international law are covered by WTO rules. It also means that these "all-affecting" WTO laws are general rules in several other aspects. Indeed, for all (or almost all) trade ties between states, the WTO constitutes a general and increasingly universal structure. Although the GATT/WTO rules have replaced a range of other bilateral and regional agreements, they do provide for, inter alia, some more comprehensive or far-reaching regional and bilateral arrangements, as well as a variety of environmental and national security exceptions. In these respects, WTO rules on trade liberalization usually cause more concentrated or comprehensive rules of international law to be continued or established (like on the environment, human rights, the law of the sea, as well as on customs unions and free trade areas).

WTO rules is part of public international law. The WTO is not a secluded island, but international law is part of the territorial realm. Furthermore, this "membership" entails cross-fertilization rather than closed doors or sealed-off boxes. WTO rule promotes public international law. It strengthened pre-existing privileges and duties in April 1994, and new WTO laws continue to do so today. Although the same is similarly true: international public law (to the extent that it has not been contracted out by the WTO) enriches and tends to enrich WTO law. The arrangement may not be harmonious at all times.

In the case of actual legal disputes, the remedy must be provided by an appropriate definition of conflicts and by the rules on how to settle them laid down in the WTO convention, the non-WTO treaty or general international law. This approach, aside from the ban on deviating from jus cogens, must first and foremost be extracted from the shared intention of the parties to the two treaties (obviously a WTO member not bound by the non-WTO rule cannot be held to it). There is very little clarification in this regard in the WTO Treaty itself, such that overlapping principles of general international law (in particular Articles 30 and 41 of the Vienna Convention, but also aspects of specific law) are always decisive.