WTO director general: will it be Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee? - Dateline Africa
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WTO director general: will it be Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee?

WTO director general: will it be Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee?

13 Dec 2020

5 minutes read

Brazilian Roberto Azevedo stepped down as World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general at the end of August 2020, a year before the expiry of his mandate
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee are the remaining candidates in the race to become the seventh head of the global trade body

 

What is the World Trade Organization (WTO)?
Established in January 1995, the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) sets the rules of trade between nations.
From 1948 to 1994, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) provided the rules for much of world trade. The WTO’s creation marked the biggest reform of international trade since the end of the second world war.
According to its website, the WTO is an international organisation whose primary purpose is to open trade for the benefit of all.

It has 164 members, which are involved in 98 per cent of world trade. The WTO is run by its member governments, and all major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, either by ministers who usually meet at least once every two years or by their ambassadors or delegates who meet regularly in Geneva.

What is the director general?
The director general of the WTO is responsible for supervising and directing the organisation’s administrative operations. The WTO has 623 secretariat staff, with a budget of 197 million Swiss francs (US$221 million) for 2020.
Why is there an election for a new director general?

Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who was the sixth director general of the WTO, stepped down at the end of August 2020, a year before the end of his second term. He was first appointed in September 2013 before being re-elected for a second four-year term in February 2017.

Who was in the running to be the new director general?
After Azevedo announced his decision to step down in May, candidates were put forward by their respective governments to become the new director general of the WTO once the deadline had expired in early July 2020.
Mexico’s Jesus Seade
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh
Moldova’s Tudor Ulianovschi
South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee
Kenya’s Amina Mohamed
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri
Britain’s Liam Fox
In mid-September 2020, Seade, Mamdouh and Ulianovschi failed to receive enough support to move into the second stage.
Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo advanced to the final stage, the WTO announced in early October 2020.

Who is Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?

Former Nigerian finance minister Okonjo-Iweala pitched herself as an “unusual director-general” prepared to break the status quo at the WTO.

During her candidacy, she focused on her track record of diplomacy, development and reform, which has seen her spend 25 years at the World Bank, join the board of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and take corporate board membership at Twitter and Standard Chartered Bank, along with positions at a dizzying roster of non-profit organisations.

“I come with a résumé that shows I’ve done reform. I’ve actually written two books about it. And those reforms were bold – they were courageous, if you allow me to say so. In one case, my mother was kidnapped, and I still went and kept going when we were doing reforms on corruption,” she said in an interview with the South China Morning Post in August 2020, referring to the 2012 abduction of her 82-year-old mother, who was released after five days in captivity and a huge manhunt.
Ngozi also holds an American passport, having taken dual citizenship in 2019, following decades of working at the World Bank and studying in the United States.

What is the World Trade Organization (WTO)?
Established in January 1995, the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) sets the rules of trade between nations.
From 1948 to 1994, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) provided the rules for much of world trade. The WTO’s creation marked the biggest reform of international trade since the end of the second world war.
According to its website, the WTO is an international organisation whose primary purpose is to open trade for the benefit of all.

It has 164 members, which are involved in 98 per cent of world trade. The WTO is run by its member governments, and all major decisions are made by the membership as a whole, either by ministers who usually meet at least once every two years or by their ambassadors or delegates who meet regularly in Geneva.

What is the director general?
The director general of the WTO is responsible for supervising and directing the organisation’s administrative operations. The WTO has 623 secretariat staff, with a budget of 197 million Swiss francs (US$221 million) for 2020.
Why is there an election for a new director general?
Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who was the sixth director general of the WTO, stepped down at the end of August 2020, a year before the end of his second term. He was first appointed in September 2013 before being re-elected for a second four-year term in February 2017.

Who was in the running to be the new director general?
After Azevedo announced his decision to step down in May, candidates were put forward by their respective governments to become the new director general of the WTO once the deadline had expired in early July 2020.
Mexico’s Jesus Seade
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh
Moldova’s Tudor Ulianovschi
South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee
Kenya’s Amina Mohamed
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri
Britain’s Liam Fox
In mid-September 2020, Seade, Mamdouh and Ulianovschi failed to receive enough support to move into the second stage.
Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo advanced to the final stage, the WTO announced in early October 2020.

Who is Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?

Former Nigerian finance minister Okonjo-Iweala pitched herself as an “unusual director general” prepared to break the status quo at the WTO.

During her candidacy, she focused on her track record of diplomacy, development and reform, which has seen her spend 25 years at the World Bank, join the board of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and take corporate board membership at Twitter and Standard Chartered Bank, along with positions at a dizzying roster of non-profit organisations.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s US passport will not help her chances in WTO leadership race, Chinese trade experts says a résumé that shows I’ve done reform. I’ve actually written two books about it. And those reforms were bold – they were courageous, if you allow me to say so. In one case, my mother was kidnapped, and I still went and kept going when we were doing reforms on corruption,” she said in an interview with the South China Morning Post in August 2020, referring to the 2012 abduction of her 82-year-old mother, who was released after five days in captivity and a huge manhunt.
Ngozi also holds an American passport, having taken dual citizenship in 2019, following decades of working at the World Bank and studying in the United States.
Who is South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee?

Yoo was one of the most highly regarded of the eight initial candidates to lead the global trade body, having spent 25 years working in various trade roles for the South Korean government, culminating in her appointment as Seoul’s first female trade minister in 2019.
As South Korea’s chief trade strategist, she was involved in negotiating the China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2014, and renegotiating the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2018.
She also spent time at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Secretariat and the South Korean embassy in China.
During her candidacy, Yoo said that the dysfunction at the WTO might be partly to blame for the trade spat between China and the US, which has run for more than two years and has helped usher in a period of wider rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

“Perhaps their trade tensions are, to some extent, due to the lack of a progress at the WTO, which for the last 25 years has not produced any multilateral trading agreements except for the trade-facilitation agreement,” Yoo said, referring to the chronic failure of the Geneva institution to create a modern open trading system capable of dealing with contrasting economic systems.
“If the WTO fails again to reinvent itself, maybe more members might be compelled to deal with their disputes in their own way outside the WTO, either bilaterally or unilaterally,” Yoo said, adding that her long experience in negotiating with both parties qualifies her to act as a mediator, should she win the race to become the WTO’s next director-general.

How have we reached this point?
The WTO moved a step closer to appointing its next director general at the end of October 2020, with top officials recommending Nigerian candidate Okonjo-Iweala for the job at a meeting in Geneva, following consultations with all the members.
However, the US told an informal gathering of the heads of delegations that it will not back her candidacy, meaning Okonjo-Iweala does not yet have the consensus needed to secure the job.

WTO General Council chair David Walker told the same meeting that Okonjo-Iweala is most likely to achieve consensus, having gained the backing of a sizeable majority of WTO members.
“One delegation could not support the candidacy of Dr Ngozi and said they would continue to support the South Korean minister [Yoo Myung-hee] – that delegation was the USA,” said WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell.
In total, 27 delegations took the floor to support the Nigerian’s candidacy, but not the US.

What is the next step to appoint a new director-general of the WTO?
The final decision was expected to be made at a formal meeting of the General Council on November 9, after the US election. But three days before the meeting was due to take place, the WTO announced “the meeting would be postponed until further notice, during which time he would continue undertaking consultations with delegations”.
If a consensus cannot be reached, then the WTO race will go for the first time to a members’ vote.

The delay in appointing a new director general adds to an already disrupted global trade body, with its appellate body – the Geneva body’s final appeal court – essentially defunct, after the US refused to confirm any new judges in protest over perceived overreach in the court’s judgements.
The WTO Appellate Body is meant to comprise seven judges appointed by the Dispute Settlement Body to serve for four years. And at least three judges are needed to rule on a case.

 

But for the first time since the WTO was set up 25 years ago, its appellate body, dubbed the top court for world trade, now has no serving judges after the departure of the Chinese member.
Zhao Hong, the last member of the appeals panel at the WTO’s dispute-settlement mechanism, gave her farewell speech in Geneva at the end of November 2020.
What are the challenges facing the new WTO director general?

Either Okonjo-Iweala or Yoo would be the first woman to lead the WTO when they follow in the footsteps of Ireland’s Peter Sutherland, Italy’s Renato Ruggiero, New Zealand’s Mike Moore, Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi, France’s Pascal Lamy, and most recently, Brazil’s Azevedo. Okonjo-Iweala would also be the first African leader of the WTO.
But whoever is victorious will be faced with a significant raft of challenges, including sorting out the WTO’s dispute-settlement function, considered by many to be its most important pillar.
With the WTO’s Appellate Body having no serving judges for the first time ever, its ability to handle disputes has been completely eroded.
This was highlighted In October 2020 when the US lodged an appeal against a WTO ruling that some of President Donald Trump’s trade war tariffs on China were unlawful. The US move effectively derails any action that China might have taken against the dispute award, made a month earlier. In WTO parlance, the case will now be “appealed into the void”, since there is no appeal court to hear it.
They will also inherit an organisation that has been completely marginalised by bilateral disputes.
The US-China trade war is another issue the incoming director-general will have in their in-tray on their first day in Geneva.

On the US-China trade war, Okonjo-Iweala said during her candidacy that the WTO could help “rebuild trust” by focusing on the issues that both sides are already at the negotiating table on. This included ongoing negotiations on fisheries subsidies – success in which would show that “the WTO can actually get all members to deliver something positive”, before focusing on meatier issues.
Okonjo-Iweala said she was “horrified” in recent years to hear the WTO roundly dismissed as “dysfunctional” and “paralysed”, saying that in her days at the World Bank the trade body was regarded with the “utmost respect as a top multilateral agency”.
“What are the words you hear about the WTO? Now, ‘this function is paralysed’, or ‘it doesn‘t do anything relevant’. One radio host asked me: ‘Why are you even applying for this job at an organisation which is irrelevant?’ And I was really taken aback,” she said.
Yoo also said that tariff battles like the US-China trade war could become more widespread, should global trade’s governing body “fail again to reinvent itself”.
Australia’s path through the WTO over China’s barley duties looks to be riddled with hurdles and pitfalls

“I don’t know why I am considered as close to the US because during my lifetime, I have worked closely with both countries,” Yoo said, when asked if the politics of the situation could be disqualifying. “In spite of all the geopolitical issues, at the end of the day, I’m confident that members can select someone who can actually deliver on the reform.”
The next director general will also be charged with overseeing reform of the Geneva body. The US, EU and Japan have pushed for reform on rules about state industrial subsidies, thought to be aimed at China.
Many developing countries, meanwhile, likened the EU’s common agricultural policy to a market-distorting agricultural subsidy. The winning candidate will need to perform a balancing act if they are to lead the WTO to reform that meets everyone’s needs.

 

SCMP

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