ST JOHN’S – In a national broadcast on Monday night, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, announced that negotiations will be recommenced as soon as possible with relevant US agencies in an attempt to resolve the dispute with the United States over online gaming.
To this end, Browne said he has instructed Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador in Washington DC, Sir Ronald Sanders, to lead this effort.
Sanders was the ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) when the case against the US was first brought and won by Antigua and Barbuda at the WTO in 2004.
In March 2004, Antigua and Barbuda won an arbitral award from the WTO in a dispute involving the United States concerning access to the US market for internet gaming.
Antigua and Barbuda sought redress from the WTO because it had a thriving internet gaming industry that employed a large number of computer literate people and earned significant sums for its economy.
However, the US took the unilateral action of prohibiting entry to its territory of internet gaming from Antigua and Barbuda, and prosecuting many of the internet gaming operators.
In very short order, Antigua and Barbuda lost lucrative jobs for its people and significant revenues to its national treasury.
“Our taking the US to the WTO’s dispute settlement procedure in March 2003 was not a hostile act or an indication of any lack of friendship toward the US. Indeed, at the time, Antigua and Barbuda was host to a US military base on our soil which we willingly accommodated in furtherance of the national security interests of the US.
“Previously, we also hosted an additional US military base as well as a relay station for the Voice of America. US tourists and investors were then – as they are now – warmly welcomed in our country,” Browne pointed out.
However, by unilaterally declaring internet gaming from Antigua and Barbuda into the US as illegal, not only did the US materially and significantly affect employment and trade revenues in Antigua and Barbuda, it also violated its commitments under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATT) which is an international agreement supervised under WTO rules.
“We had no choice but to go to the WTO. That is the recourse open to all countries that have a trade dispute, and it is a recourse used by the US more than any other nation. It is the mechanism for the peaceful and legal settlement of trade disputes, according to rules which bind 163 countries around the world,” Browne noted.
Prior to asking the WTO to establish an Arbitration Panel to adjudicate the dispute, the then Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) government engaged the US government in consultations in an attempt to settle the matter.
However, after those consultations failed to reach an understanding, in March 2004, the Arbitration Panel found in Antigua and Barbuda’s favour.
The day after the decision was rendered in the WTO, the ABLP lost the elections, and the incoming government of the United Progressive Party (UPP) was left to superintend the implementation of the WTO decision.
In the years that followed, the UPP government again entered a period of consultation with the US authorities, but that too ended in stalemate.
Eventually the US appealed the decision of the Arbitration Panel in 2005, but the result remained in Antigua and Barbuda’s favour.
Throughout the UPP administration, despite many efforts to reach an agreement with the US to meet its obligations, no satisfactory conclusion was reached.
In 2006, Antigua and Barbuda went back to a WTO Compliance Panel, which found that: “The US had taken no action to comply with the rulings and thus remained out of compliance”.
The matter again had to be pursued twice in 2007 at the WTO and, in the end, the arbitrators set Antigua and Barbuda’s level of trade loss at US$21 million annually.
The WTO also awarded Antigua and Barbuda the right to suspend protections of US intellectual property rights to recover the money due.
In other words, Antigua and Barbuda has the legal right to sell US material, such as films, videos, music, books including text books, without the payment of copyright.
That sum now stands in excess of US$200 million.
According to Browne, since the ABLP returned to office in June 2014, it too has engaged the authorities in the US in discussions on this matter, but the Cabinet has agreed that proposals made by the US authorities do not represent a serious commitment to resolve the issue.
“By comparison with the sum of over US$200 million that our country has lost, and that has been awarded to us by the highest competent international authority, the proposals from the US are regrettably paltry. Therefore, we have not been able to accept them,” he said.
Browne also noted that, while Antigua and Barbuda has received nothing so far, the US has benefitted by hundreds of millions of dollars from penalties and fines derived from prosecuting internet gaming operators who were located in Antigua and Barbuda.
“We will make further efforts to negotiate an acceptable solution with the US, but, like every other citizen and resident of our nation, our patience is wearing thin. We are not asking for anything more than that which we have lost, and to which we are entitled in accordance with the rules of the WTO.
“We hope that the US authorities will agree now to an expeditious settlement or we may have to consider implementing the enforcement options, including measures authorized by the WTO to suspend protections of US intellectual property rights.
“This is not our preferred option and we hope that we will not be forced to exercise it, but we will if necessary,” he continued.
Browne also noted that US President Barack Obama has said on more than one occasion that, in the conduct of international relations, “might is not right”, and not because countries are small that larger ones “should just elbow them aside”.
“We will invoke those principles in our negotiations with the US agencies as two friendly countries with a history of cooperation and collaboration. But this matter has drawn on for too long to the severe disadvantage of the people of Antigua and Barbuda. It must now be resolved and we are prepared to pursue the remedies as authorized by the WTO in the interest of fairness,” he concluded.