A dispute-settlement panel of the World Trade Organization will begin discussions this month on the trade row between Tokyo and Washington over Japan’s photographic film and paper market, Japanese government officials said Apr. 2.

The neutral panel of three members _ from Switzerland, Brazil and New Zealand _ will meet for the first time on April 17-18 in Geneva and hear senior government officials from both Japan and the United States make their cases over the dispute, the officials said, requesting that they not be named.

The 15-nation European Union, Mexico and Australia are also expected to attend the panel discussions as third parties who could be affected by developments in the dispute, in which the U.S. accuses Japan of unfairly restricting foreign access to its photographic film and paper market. The panel’s first meeting will come just six months after the Dispute-Settlement Body of the WTO, the Geneva-based watchdog on international commerce that succeeded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in January 1995, decided last October to set up the panel at the request of the U.S.

The U.S. filed a complaint with the WTO over the film dispute last June and held “bilateral consultations” with Japan in the first stage of the WTO dispute-settlement procedure. But as the bilateral consultations failed to produce a settlement within two months of the U.S. complaint being filed, the U.S. executed its right under the WTO’s rules to request the establishment of a WTO panel to rule on the trade issue. A WTO dispute-settlement panel usually hands down a ruling within about nine months.

When the Dispute-Settlement Body decided to establish the panel on the Japan-U.S. film dispute last October, it was widely expected that the panel would hand down a ruling by this summer. But now the panel’s ruling is expected to be delayed, possibly until early next year, because it took longer than usual to set the date for the first meeting. “The film dispute is so complicated that both Japan and the U.S. needed sufficient time to make themselves fully prepared for a legal battle at the WTO,” one of the government officials said.

The film panel is the second WTO panel set up to deal with Japan’s allegedly unfair and discriminatory practices against imported products. The first one dealt with complaints from the U.S., Canada and the EU over Japan’s liquor tax system. Last October, the WTO handed down a final ruling against Tokyo on the liquor dispute.

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