Antigua "losing all hope" of U.S. payout in gambling dispute

GENEVA (Reuters) - Antigua and Barbuda is “losing all hope” of a financial settlement in a long-running dispute with the United States and it may ask the head of the World Trade Organization to mediate, Antiguan ambassador Ronald Sanders told the WTO on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the U.S. Ronald Sanders poses for a portrait at his embassy office in Washington, U.S., July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The United States responded by accusing Antigua and Barbuda of playing politics.

The tiny archipelago built up an Internet gambling industry to replace declining tourism revenues, only to find itself shut out of the world’s biggest gambling market.

It took its case to the WTO in 2003 and eventually won the right to compensation of $21 million annually, after the WTO judges upheld its complaint that U.S. laws were discriminatory.

Washington has not paid out, and Sanders said his country had lost $315 million so far, equivalent to more than a quarter of its annual GDP and less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. economy.

Although the WTO awarded Antigua the right to use trade sanctions to recoup its losses, it opted for a settlement.

“We continued to hope that a sense of justice and fairness would prevail. But, we are now losing all hope,” Sanders told the WTO’s dispute settlement body, according to a copy of his remarks provided to Reuters.

“After a long period of exhausting attempts to engage the United States, Antigua and Barbuda is now contemplating, once again, approaching the (WTO) Director-General... to join in seeking a mediated solution that would bring much needed relief after these arduous 15 years of damage to our economy.”

Trade experts say the case highlights a weakness in the WTO system, because small nations have little leverage to enforce rulings against the world’s big powers.

Antigua does not have a permanent representation in Geneva but it has repeatedly sent envoys to the WTO to plead for a U.S. payout, most recently last September when the island of Barbuda was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma.

“All of Antigua and Barbuda’s attempts, in a spirit of good faith, have failed,” Sanders said.

U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea told the WTO meeting that Antigua had made “extreme demands”, and monetary payments were not provided for under the rules. The United States had made repeated offers to settle the row, to no avail, he said.

The current U.S. administration had had no reply to a formal offer of further discussions, Shea said, according to a prepared copy of his remarks.

“For these reasons, Antigua’s decision to place this matter on the agenda today appears to be a political statement, rather than an effort to engage on a resolution of this dispute.”

Sanders said none of the U.S. offers amounted to even 1 percent of the damage caused.

“The WTO dispute settlement was conceived as a system where all members, irrespective of their size, would have their rights protected,” he said.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Alison Williams and Raissa Kasolowsky