Storm-battered Antigua asks U.S. to settle 12-year old WTO bill

GENEVA (Reuters) - Antigua and Barbuda asked the United States on Friday to settle a decade-old trade dispute to help the Caribbean country pay the $250 million cost of recovery from Hurricane Irma, which “completely decimated” the island of Barbuda.

The WTO backed Antigua in 2005 in a dispute with the United States over online gambling rights and authorized it to impose trade sanctions.

Antigua has sought a settlement rather than taking retaliatory action. 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.

“There would be no better time than now for the United States to settle this long-running issue which mars an otherwise friendly relationship between our two countries that has existed for generations,” Antiguan ambassador Ronald Sanders told the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement body.

In 2013, Antigua toughened its stance, floating the possibility of setting up a state-sponsored website to download Hollywood movies and U.S.-made computer software, a way of clawing back its trade losses from U.S.-owned intellectual property rights.

“We have not done so because we have too high a regard for the U.S. owners of intellectual property who have contributed much to the enjoyment and advancement of the world,” Sanders told the WTO meeting.

Antigua’s trade losses amounted to over $200 million, and it had rejected a U.S. offer that “did not amount to $2 million”, less than it spent on the entire trade dispute, Sanders said in his statement, which he provided to Reuters.

“Therefore, while the trade revenues losses to my small country is almost 20 per cent of our Gross Domestic product, settling with us would represent only 0.0011 percent of one year of the GDP of the United States.”

Sanders noted that the United States had paid more than $440 million to Brazil to settle a WTO dispute over intellectual property rights, and said his country still hoped to resolve things amicably.

“It would be very regrettable... if tiny Antigua and Barbuda were compelled to be the first country to have to suspend payment of U.S. intellectual property rights despite its best efforts to reach a settlement with the U.S., its largest and richest neighbor to whom it has always been – and remains – a friend.”

The U.S. response to Sanders at the closed-door WTO meeting was not immediately made available.

Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Larry King and Hugh Lawson