World trade's top court close to breakdown as U.S. blocks another judge

GENEVA (Reuters) - The supreme court of world trade is close to breakdown after the United States turned down a last-ditch petition to reappoint one of the four remaining judges at the World Trade Organization.

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U.S. President Donald Trump has railed against the WTO judges, who have the final say on trade disputes. His ambassador in Geneva has accused them of overstepping their authority, breaking their own rules and interfering in U.S. laws.

Three judges are needed for each case and all 164 WTO members must comply with their rulings. The WTO normally has seven judges but after a U.S. campaign to block appointments and reappointments only four remained.

Wednesday’s meeting of the WTO’s dispute settlement body was the last chance of reprieve for Shree Baboo Chekitan Servansing, a trade judge from Mauritius, before his term expires on Sept. 30.

U.S. officials told last month’s meeting they would block Servansing but some diplomats had hoped that offers to amend the judges’ procedures and other reforms might be enough to persuade Trump’s trade negotiators.

Almost 70 countries have repeatedly petitioned the United States to let the appointments go ahead. But a U.S. official again turned down their plea at WTO headquarters in Geneva.

“As we have explained in prior meetings, we are not in a position to support the proposed decision,” a U.S. official said, according to a transcript of prepared remarks. “The systemic concerns that we have identified remain unaddressed.”

Servansing declined to comment.

The WTO is presiding over a record number of disputes, many of them triggered by Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum and his trade war with China.

Trade officials say the lack of judges plunges the organization into crisis because if one of the three remaining judges has to recuse themselves from a case for legal reasons, the system will break down.

The terms of two more judges -- Thomas Graham, an American, and Indian chief judge Ujal Singh Bhatia -- will end in December 2019, which will leave China’s Hong Zhao alone in office until her term ends in November 2020.

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg