The task before the next WTO boss


The final phase for the selection of a new Director-General of the World Trade Organization(WTO) began last week. As the world’s largest multilateral trade institution, with the mandate to foster business stability and settle disputes among nations, the search for a replacement is quite rugged. This is essentially, due to the complexities associated with the regulatory functions of both the agency and its leadership.

Therefore, whoever succeeds Dr. Roberto Azevêdo, who resigned last August, has a huge task ahead, principally to revive and reposition, the agency, which elicits more criticisms than commendations. Recall that Azevêdo, a Brazilian top diplomat resigned, a year before the expiration of his second term in office. Despite citing personal and family reasons for this sudden exit, many believe that the frosty relationship with the present United States(US) administration may have influenced his controversial departure.

Expectedly, last week’s commencement of the final phase for the selection of the incoming superintendent , has sparked entrenched divisions and imperatives to revamp the world’s largest trade supervisory body. The contest has also played up major complaints and complexities that have plagued the multilateral institution, since inception. Certainly, the next WTO boss will contend with the exigencies and burden of a broken and bruised world system, aggravated by COVID-19 pandemic and attendant financial shrinkage.

Virtually all the aspirants, promised to prioritize reviewing the agency’s functions, in line with its mandate, amidst current economic instabilities. Former World Bank director, Prof Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is undoubtedly one of the front runners, with Egyptian Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh and Kenyan Amina C. Mohamed, as the other Africa contenders. Others include Tudor Ulianovschi of Moldova, Yoo Myung-hee Korea and Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri of Saudi Arabia.

United Kingdom (UK) and Mexico have Liam Fox and Jesús Seade Kuri, as their candidates. Given the huge challenges facing the regulatory organization and the ongoing horse trading, it will take more than excellent credentials and personal charm to scale through this elimination stage. WTO, is quite complex, because it is saddled with the duty to bring order to the world’s market, by ensuring easy and predictable trade flows. With this unique mandate, it is the only international authority dealing with the global rules of trade.

‘By lowering trade barriers through negotiations among member governments, the WTO’s system also breaks down other barriers between peoples and trading economies.’ Therefore, the head of the organization is expected to be an unbiased umpire, which is supposedly an utopian presumption. It is therefore not surprising that since its establishment the regulatory body, has been under fire for several reasons. Indeed no other institution under the United Nations(UN) system has been so vilified.

According to Dr. Azevêdo the WTO is not perfect, but defended its existence, saying, ‘it is essential if we do not want world trade to be governed by the law of the jungle. Either we shape ourselves and start talking to each other and find common solutions or we are going to pay a high price for it.’ Many of the criticisms coming from United States(US), under President Donald Trump as well as the European(EU) and Japan, cover three focal areas.

According to Atlantic Council, a US-based group devoted to global leadership, the organization is faulted by the ability of WTO members to self-identify as ‘developing’ countries, in order to receive special treatment, the failure of many WTO members to properly notify the agency and other members of government subsidies, in accordance with specific agreement rules, and alleged overreach by the appellate body.’ Much of these complaints, the group noted, are directed at policies and actions of China, which seem to be allegedly ‘skirting WTO rules in the behavior of state-owned enterprises, dumping products, and stealing intellectual property.’

It also noted that ‘the Trump administration also kicked against the policy that the organization’s dispute settlement bodies can determine the legality of a member state’s use of national security, as a motivation for taking measures that are against WTO agreements.’ In retaliation it ‘has repeatedly blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appellate body over concerns about judicial overreach in the organization.’

A senior fellow in the Atlantic Council Mark Linscott said the ‘appellate body has engaged in interpretation of WTO rules that has gone beyond its mandate as laid out in the dispute settlement understanding.’ Consequently, some countries are pushing for reforms ‘in terms of making it more definitively clear what the appellate body’s mandate is.’
Linscott however, said ‘some successful reforms are underway but get a little less attention.’
For instance, ‘the current negotiations on fishery and industrial subsidies subsidies and technology transfer, especially since the admission of China into the body,’ get scant attention.

He also cited huge gaps in positions, in those plurilateral negotiations between the US, Japan, and the EU in some respects on one hand, and China, which has a very different approach to regulation on ecommerce issues.’ However, despite these trade wars, degenerating into rising threats to the existence and indeed future of this agency, the significance of the mediatory body cannot be discounted. The intense struggle, by accomplished experts and technocrats, to head an institution, that has been described as ‘dead,’ ‘dying’ or simply ‘irrelevant,’ attests to WTO’s worth and status.

This goes to show that a lot is at stake, with the battle royale, for both political and economic dominance at national and global levels, which is overheating the hunt for an acceptable chief. This can be gleaned from the deft moves and manifestoes of the candidates, gallantly displayed at the just concluded second stage and other occasions.

Last Sunday, former World Bank director, Prof Okonjo-Iweala, stormed Geneva to power up her campaign, with pictures, she posted on her twitter handle. Indisputably, whoever gets the plum post as a keen business negotiator, will certainly wield a lot of influence, but must gear up for terrific pressure, due to escalating tensions across nations and regions.

.Ojukwu is a journalist and Fellow of Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship. Kindly send feedback to [email protected]

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