World Trade Organisation director-general Roberto Azevêdo. Picture: AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI
World Trade Organisation director-general Roberto Azevêdo. Picture: AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI

Geneva — The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was expected to announce the early departure of its director-general on Thursday, creating shockwaves at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the global economy.

Responding to questions about news reports that Roberto Azevêdo was preparing to step down before his term expires next year, WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell said that the global trade body “will have an announcement on this matter following the heads of delegation meeting” starting at 2pm GMT.

Several diplomats confirmed that they had been hastily called to take part in a meeting on Thursday on “pressing administrative matters”, and several said they understood Azevêdo’s future would be on the agenda.

And Azevêdo himself appeared to confirm the information in an interview with Brazil’s main financial newspaper Valor Econômico, insisting that moving forward his departure could avoid weighing down an important ministerial meeting next year with leadership discussions.

The Brazilian career diplomat first took the reins of the global trade body in 2013 and his second term is due to end in September 2021, but he acknowledged he might leave a full year earlier.

‘No good time’

“There is no good time for this type of thing,” he told Valor, adding, though, that it would be good to get new management in place quickly to concentrate fully on a wide range of challenges facing the organisation and global trade.

Azevêdo’s early departure would come at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the global economy and international trade into turmoil, suffering downturns not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Global trade, already hit by trade tensions and uncertainties around Brexit, is expected to register “double-digit declines in trade volumes” in nearly all regions this year, the WTO said last month.

The 164-member organisation was, meanwhile, already in crisis before the coronavirus pandemic hit, amid raging trade wars and as the US under President Donald Trump has pushed for dramatic reforms of the Geneva-based body.

The WTO was, for instance, forced to put its dispute settlement appeal system on ice last December after Washington blocked the appointment of new judges, preventing it from reaching a three-judge quorum.

Azevêdo’s expected departure “comes at a very bad moment for the institution, as the trade system has become deeply destabilised”, Sébastien Jean, head of CEPII think-tank, said. He pointed to “existing tensions, in particular, the scathing criticism from the US president, violations of many agreements, the US-China trade war and the paralysis of the appeals body”.

He also lamented the many trade measures taken in reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, including a wide range of export restrictions.

Azevêdo, who, before his appointment as WTO chief spent five years as his country’s ambassador to the organisation, has enjoyed a reputation as a consensus-builder. During his first term he dedicated much energy to trying to unblock long-deadlocked trade agreements.

African candidate 

The WTO has, for nearly two decades, failed to conclude the Doha Round of trade liberalisation talks. However, on Azevêdo’s watch, WTO members did finally conclude their first ever multilateral agreement when they reached a deal in Bali in late 2013 on overhauling global customs procedures.

But countries have since then failed to reach any further multilateral agreements, including on fisheries subsidies, and, since 2017, the WTO has struggled to deal with a US administration openly hostile to its multilateral approach.

If Azevêdo steps down prematurely, the WTO will likely be forced to rush through a usually drawn-out election period under less than optimal conditions, as the organisation struggles to navigate a new reality of online meetings and is still debating the possibility of virtual decision-making.

It remains to be seen who will take his place, but many observers are already betting on a candidate from Africa — and against a WTO insider.

Azevêdo’s “insider” status “was not necessarily conducive to giving him true influence over the unfolding events”, Jean said. “Azevêdo’s mandate has rather been characterised by impotence to stop the destabilising tendencies” facing the global trading system.

One diplomatic source, meanwhile, said that there appeared to be a clear “consensus” that the successful candidate to take the reins at the WTO should not come from “a big economic power”, and certainly not from China or the US, in light of their trade war.