Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: REUTERS
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: REUTERS

Geneva —  The World Trade Organisation (WTO) said  on Thursday that Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee advanced to the final round in the race to be its director-general, setting the stage for the first woman to lead the 25-year-old organisation.

“Our aim continues to be to encourage and facilitate the building of consensus among members, and to assist in moving from this final slate of two candidates to a decision on appointment,” WTO general council chair David Walker said during a meeting in Geneva.

Walker said the final phase of the selection process will begin on October 19 and run until October 27, after which the WTO will seek to name a consensus winner.

The campaign to lead the WTO during the most turbulent period of its existence is playing out against the backdrop of the pandemic, a worldwide recession, the US-China battle for trade supremacy and the American election. President Donald Trump has blasted the organisation as the worst trade deal in US history and pledged to overhaul it to better suit the country’s interests.

Okonjo-Iweala served two stints as Nigeria’s finance minister and one term as foreign affairs minister. She has experience working at international governance bodies as a former MD of the World Bank and as a chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.

Yoo is South Korea’s trade minister. During her 25-year career in government, she has helped expand her country’s trade network through bilateral accords with China, the EU, the UK and the US.

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the two are “very strong and very experienced”. EU member states, which unanimously backed both candidates in the previous two rounds, will now hold internal consultations to determine their ultimate preference.

“They’re both very well qualified — it’s going to be a fight,” said William Reinsch, a trade official in the Clinton administration and senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The top challenge will be “restoring the organisation to full strength and viability, and restoring its reputation. “You need members to have confidence that the WTO is capable of solving problems. I think right now that confidence is eroded.”

Ahead of the formal decision, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke with Yoo by phone and congratulated her for making it to the final round. Moon told Yoo that she “fought well under difficult circumstances”, presidential spokesperson Kang Min-seok said in Seoul on Thursday.

Yoo said in September that she wanted the WTO to offer a meaningful platform for the US and China to discuss their trade disputes. She vowed to play the role of mediator, if chosen to lead the organisation and to work as a force for multilateralism.

She said having a woman at the helm of the WTO would better foster an “inclusive, diverse, and resilient workplace culture”.

Okonjo-Iweala is running as reformer and an outsider, arguing that she can bring a “clear set of eyes” to a dysfunctional organisation.

Okonjo-Iweala previously said there are a few priorities for the WTO’s next director-general: reform its dispute settlement system and update the organisation’s rule book to address the economic and technological developments of the 21st century.

“A third one is to make sure at the next ministerial, which is supposed to happen next year, that there are some good outcomes to some of the multilateral negotiations that are ongoing — in fisheries, for example,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

The UK’s Liam Fox, Kenya’s Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibril and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri did not secure enough support in the second round of consultations.

Clouding the outlook for the selection process is the US presidential election on November 3. The WTO makes decisions on a consensus basis, and a lack of American support for any of the finalists could mean delays in picking the new director-general.

“I don’t see how you could conclude that either candidate would be unacceptable, from a US point of view,” Reinsch said, citing standards mentioned by US trade representative Robert Lighthizer. “Lighthizer was asked for criteria for the selection and I think he mentioned three: committed to reform, no whiff of anti-Americanism, and taking on countries that flout the rules. I think they certainly meet his criteria.”

If WTO members are unable to select a leader by consensus, a vote requiring a qualified majority could be held as a last resort, which would be an unprecedented development for the organisation.

The vacancy for the top WTO job arose when Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo decided to step down at the end of August, a year before his term was due to end.

WTO members view the race as an opportunity to reshape the organisation, whose mission of economic integration is under threat from protectionist policies about the globe. Without reform, it risks being sidelined during the biggest economic crisis in a century.


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