Export Restrictions in Times of Pandemic: Options and Limits under International Trade Agreements

17 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2020 Last revised: 8 May 2020

See all articles by Joost Pauwelyn

Joost Pauwelyn

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID); Georgetown University Law Centre

Date Written: April 30, 2020


“Trade saves lives” could have been the headline. COVID-19 hit so hard, quickly and across so many nations at the same time, that many countries not only rushed to produce and import, but also imposed export restrictions on protective masks, ventilators and other products they were running out of. On one count, as of 26 April 2020, at least 75 governments had banned or limited exports of medical supplies and medicines.

The impact and pros and cons of such export restrictions have been discussed elsewhere. What this contribution seeks to do is to set out the options and limits under international trade agreements.

Section II discusses export restrictions under EU law, first within and then outside the EU. Section III turns to WTO agreements, discussing both obligations in respect of export restrictions, and a number of exceptions explicitly provided for. It also refers to trade remedies as a possible response to export restrictions. Section IV briefly examines preferential trade agreements. Section V concludes, highlighting the importance of transparency and the limits of law and enforcement procedures when it comes to emergency measures, especially those enacted on a temporary basis in the midst of a crisis.

Economists have almost universally condemned the recent surge in export restrictions. The main take-away point when looking at what international law currently provides for is, however, that it offers countries a great deal of leeway to enact such restrictions especially during a pandemic. One question for further research and negotiations is whether this wiggle room ought to be reduced to effectively address the next pandemic. Some recent commitments and proposals have been made in this direction. They are referenced in the conclusion.

Keywords: Export Restrictions, Public Health, COVID-19, Food Security, Shortages, WTO, EU, International Trade

Suggested Citation

Pauwelyn, Joost, Export Restrictions in Times of Pandemic: Options and Limits under International Trade Agreements (April 30, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3579965 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3579965

Joost Pauwelyn (Contact Author)

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) ( email )

PO Box 136
Geneva, Geneva CH-1211

HOME PAGE: http://graduateinstitute.ch

Georgetown University Law Centre ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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