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Free Trade vis-Ã -vis Morality: Revisiting the Public-Morals Exception Clause in the World Trade Organization

Swargodeep Sarkar

Foreign Trade Review, 2021, vol. 56, issue 4, 476-490

Abstract: The most sanctified obligation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the promotion and facilitation of international trade and liberalisation of the world economy. Although WTO members are committed to the WTO principle of free flow of goods and services among its members, the WTO permits its members to retain certain regulatory powers under its system to impose trade-restrictive measures based on certain exceptions, like, among other things, public morality under Article XX(a) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, 1994). Nevertheless, the question remains: what is public morality for a WTO member, and how far may this clause be invoked in defence of adopting trade-restrictive measures? Recently, the WTO panel on the US tariff case revived the long-standing debate on international trade versus public morality. Is a WTO member free to choose any trade-restrictive measure under the cloak of public morality? Then, what mechanism has the WTO panel/AB (Appellate Body) envisaged to check WTO members from adopting any trade-restrictive measure based on public morals? This article tries to answer these questions by analysing previous WTO disputes related to trade and morality. Against this background, this article looks back at the history of the public-morals exception clause, revisits previous WTO case laws on the public-morals exception and tries to ascertain the precise meaning of public morality—how the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) checks and balances two conflicting principles, that is, the right to regulate and the principle of free trade—and whether WTO has successfully developed a coherent jurisprudential approach to deal with contradictory interests, that is, trade versus morality. JEL Codes: F, F1, F13

Keywords: WTO; public morality; GATT; GATS; public morals exception clause (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2021
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DOI: 10.1177/00157325211015468

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