8 September 2020
WTO Director-General Selection Process: Candidates Present Their Visions, Final Phase Kicks Off
Photo Credit: Lynn Wagner
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The second phase of the selection process, in which the candidates “make themselves known to members,” concluded on 7 September 2020, and the third and final phase began.

During the third phase of the selection process, which is expected to “last no more than two months,” the field of candidates will be reduced from eight to five, then down to two, and finally down to one consensus candidate.

During the second phase of the selection process, the eight candidates delivered presentations to the General Council, outlining their priorities and proposals on taking the WTO forward.

The third and final phase of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General selection process has commenced, after eight candidates for the post (from Egypt, Kenya, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the UK) “made themselves known to members.” At the SDG Knowledge Hub, we take a look at the candidates’ visions and priorities for the Organization.

On 14 May 2020, Roberto Azevêdo (Brazil) announced that he would step down from his post on 31 August, cutting his second term as WTO Director-General short by one year. The first phase of the 2020 Director-General selection process, during which countries nominated their candidates for the position, commenced on 8 June and concluded on 8 July, resulting in eight nominations, which we reported on here.

The second phase of the selection process, in which the candidates “make themselves known to members,” concluded on 7 September 2020, and the third phase began. Much of the current discussion centers around the role of the Director-General in helping solve the WTO’s challenges. During the second phase of the selection process, the eight candidates delivered presentations to the General Council, outlining their priorities and proposals on taking the Organization forward.

Jesús Seade Kuri (Mexico) pledges, in the first one hundred days, to: reach an agreement on fisheries subsidies; reinstate the dispute settlement system’s body of second instance; meet with political, business, and opinion leaders to “put an end to the indifference and pessimism” around the WTO; and find mechanisms that will help countries most affected by the COVID-19 crisis to reintegrate themselves into international trade. Seade Kuri undertakes to work towards the Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) with a view to establishing a work programme and resuming discussions on issues in respect of which negotiations have been suspended. On modernizing the WTO, he pledges to establish “an informal dialogue on the Organization’s weaknesses and the challenges it currently faces, through yearly forums or specialized meetings.” Seade Kuri also commits to ensure that environment-related concerns are incorporated in the WTO’s work.

Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt) emphasizes the need for “a different type of leadership,” where the WTO Director-General is a “trusted advisor,” “honest broker,” and facilitator, enabled by knowledge of the multilateral trading system and impartiality. For Mamdouh, WTO reform “is about reforming the treaty itself” to ensure that the Organization is fit for purpose. His priorities for MC12 are to agree on a reform agenda and to achieve concrete progress on issues currently under negotiation, including fisheries subsidies. He also calls for progress on Joint Initiatives on e-commerce, domestic regulation in services, micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and investment facilitation.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria) offers to “bring a fresh pair of eyes to the WTO’s challenges,” including “renewing and improving” the Organization. Her vision is “a WTO with Purpose,” where trade helps foster economic growth and sustainable development, “fresh challenges” such as ensuring complementarity between trade and the environment and responding to the realities of e-commerce and the digital economy are addressed, and solutions to the dispute settlement “stalemate” are found. Highlighting her experience as Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, at the time of the COVID-19 crisis, Okonjo-Iweala stresses the need to ensure that stimulus packages do not undermine members’ WTO commitments by distorting production and trade. She views issues of women and trade and MSMEs, as well as least developed countries’ (LDCs) participation in regional and global supply chains as important to ensure greater inclusion.

Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova) highlights four strategic priorities for the future Director-General: to stop any deterioration or decline of the multilateral trading system; focus on smaller, incremental gains; get negotiations started again; and bring members together and develop a long-term vision for the WTO. His immediate priorities include: reforming the dispute settlement mechanism and the Appellate Body to ensure prompt resolution of trade disputes; concluding fisheries subsidies negotiations at MC12; promoting issues of the digital environment and new areas of intellectual property; supporting discussions on circular economy and plastic pollution; and ensuring the transparency of trade-restrictive measures imposed in the context of COVID-19.

Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea) defines her goal as “to make the WTO more relevant, resilient, and responsive.” Yoo’s top priorities are: MC12, including a successful outcome on fisheries subsidies and “tangible outcomes” on e-commerce; WTO reform, including to “update the rule-books” to “deliver agreements with real economic impact,” restore the dispute settlement system, and implement agreements and increase transparency; and sustainable development through inclusive trade initiatives and strengthened assistance to LDCs.

Amina C. Mohamed (Kenya) identifies reform, recovery, and renewal as the three main themes of her vision for the WTO. She stresses the need “to recapture the visionary inspiration of the original architects of the system” and “breathe new life into the WTO” so that it can assist in COVID-19 recovery by helping rebuild economic resilience to boost growth and sustainable development. Mohamed also highlights the need to find areas of convergence to update the trading system to take account of climate change, the digital revolution, poverty, and sustainable development. She recalls the WTO’s “special responsibility towards its most vulnerable Members” such as LDCs, and highlights the importance of the economic empowerment of women through trade.

Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia) proposes focusing on why the system “is not delivering,” and stresses “the need to recognize the consequences for the WTO of over-performance in litigation, while neglecting the negotiating and monitoring functions.” He pledges to establish “critical success factors” gleaned from members’ goals and objectives, along with key performance indicators of the WTO’s performance of its core functions. Al-Tuwaijri supports “plurilateral negotiations as long as they are open to all Members, their outcome is applied to all on a most-favored nation basis, and they do not create rules that prejudice the interests of non-participants.” He undertakes to “aim higher” than concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations by “work[ing] overtime to support a more complete agenda for the future of the WTO by MC12.”

Liam Fox (UK) describes himself as “a passionate believer in a rules-based international trade system,” and emphasizes the need to recommit to the principles of most favored nation, national treatment, and transparency of commitments, warning that “free trade must never mean a free for all.” He identifies several challenges, including: agreeing new rules on fisheries subsidies to meet SDG target 14.6 at MC12; making progress on Joint Initiatives on e-commerce, services, MSMEs, and investment; and issues related to agriculture such as subsidies, public stockholding for food security, and cotton. Fox also commits to “ensure that at least half of the WTO’s most senior leadership team are women.”

During the third and final phase of the selection process, which is expected to “last no more than two months,” WTO General Council Chair Walker (New Zealand), together with Chair of the Dispute Settlement Body Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Chair of the Trade Policy Review Body Harald Aspelund (Iceland), will consult with all WTO members “to assess their preferences and seek to determine which candidate is best placed to attract consensus support.” According to the guidelines for the final stage of the selection process agreed by the General Council on 31 July, Walker, Castillo, and Aspelund will meet individually with each WTO member between 7 and 16 September, which will be followed by two more rounds of consultation. On 16 September, the field of candidates will be reduced from eight to five. After the second round of consultation the number of candidates will go down from five to two. The third round of consultation is expected to yield a final consensus candidate.

The General Council also agreed that following the departure of Roberto Azevêdo as Director-General on 31 August, all four Deputy Directors-General – Yi Xiaozhun (China), Alan Wolff (US), Karl Brauner (Germany), and Yonov Frederick Agah (Nigeria) – will continue their existing responsibilities until the new Director-General takes office.

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