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WTO choses new Director General

After being stalled for months due to objections from the United States’ Government, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has chosen its first African and first woman Director-General (DG) in the person of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The “uncertainty” of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment emerged when the Trump Administration had opted to lend its support to the next candidate for the post: The Republic of Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. However, with the latter having withdrawn her candidacy earlier this month and the new Biden-Harris Administration dropping the USA’s objection, the path to the helm of the WTO was made clear for Dr. Ngozi.

The new DG, in her statement to the General Council, acknowledged the significance of the change in the US’s position. “Without the recent swift action by the Biden-Harris Administration to join the consensus of the membership on my candidacy, we would not be here today,” she said. “I am grateful to the US for the prompt action and strong expression of support.”

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, who is scheduled to take office on March 1st, has made it clear that she is fully aware of the challenges ahead. “The WTO was already facing acute challenges before COVID-19,” she added. “These challenges have now been amplified by the pandemic.” Chief among these challenges is the high incidence of export restrictions that threaten to disrupt the supply chain for key medical goods and equipment that are most needed for the recovery in both economic and health terms.

The new Director has called on members to resist and reject what she calls “vaccine nationalism” and to likewise resist the temptation to retreat towards protectionism. She has also acknowledged that the WTO needs to catch up to the times. “The WTO rule book is outdated, and its rules lag behind those of several regional and bilateral trade agreements which are incorporating a lot of innovations. The rulebook must be updated to take account of 21st century realities such as e-commerce and the digital economy,” she shared.

Among other reforms, the incoming WTO leader also has set her sights on ensuring that the technical arm of the organization is adequately capacitated. “The WTO Secretariat should be strengthened to enable it to provide cutting edge services to the membership in all relevant areas of WTO’s work, including implementation, monitoring, dispute settlement and negotiations.”

While Dr. Okonjo-Iweala spoke to innovative ways forward, she also alluded to the fact that longstanding and controversial matters also remain on her radar. Among these more “traditional” issues, we find the matter of the application of Special and Differential Treatment (SDT), provisions for which are contained within various WTO agreements. Undoubtedly, developing and least developing countries (LDCs) will be paying close attention to works in this area, as it has conventionally afforded developing-and-LDC members certain advantages.

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