On May 14, 2020, the WTO’s Director-General Roberto Azevedo announced during a virtual meeting of all WTO Members that he would be stepping down from his position on August 31st, one year ahead of the end of his second four year term which ends August 31, 2021. His message to the membership was that the decision was personal and was intended to permit the WTO to choose a new Director-General hopefully before his departure and to avoid a dilution of effort needed for the next Ministerial Conference which has been postponed from June 2020 to either summer or winter of 2021. The current Chair of the WTO General Council, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, indicated that he would be notifying Members shortly of the start of the selection process and would be consulting to see if the process could be expedited in light of DG Azevedo’s departure in three and a half months. Both statements are linked here and reproduced below. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_14may20_e.htm.WTO-_-2020-News-items-DG-Azevêdo-announces-he-will-step-down-on-31-August
Procedures for the Appointment of Directors-General
Since 2003, there have been procedures for the appointment of directors-general adopted by the General Council of the WTO (10 December 2002), The procedures are included in WT/L/509.
The timeline laid out in the procedures calls for the process to start nine months prior to the “expiry of the term of an incumbent Director-General.” WT/L/509, para. 7. So the current situation will either run over beyond DG Azevedo’s departure (indeed potentially to as late as sometime in February 2021) or will have to be seriously expedited (as potentially permitted under para. 23).
While expediting the process is possible, the various steps required by the process suggest that it is highly unlikely a new WTO Director-General will have been agreed to by the time DG Azevedo steps down. Thus, the WTO will likely face a vacancy for some period of time. Para. 23 of the procedures agreed to would then require the General Council to designate one of the four Deputy Directors-General to serve as Acting Director-General until the selection process for a new Director-General is completed. Thus, if there is a vacancy beginning September 1st, the General Council will be selecting an Acting Director-General from among these individuals — Yonov Frederick Agah (Nigeria), Karl Brauner (Germany), Alan Wolff (US) and Yi Xiaozhun (China).
Timing of Steps Absent Expedition
The procedures (WT/L/509) provide for the following timeline if a selection process occurs within the nine months outlined:
- “Members shall have one month after the start of the appointment process to nominate candidates. Nominations shall be submitted by Members only, and in respect of their own nationals.” Para. 8.
- Chair of the General Council has materials distributed to members as received and sends a consolidated list of candidates after the close of the one month period. Para. 10.
- “The candidates nominated shall then have three months to make themselves known to Members and to engage in discussions on the pertinent issues facing the Organization.” Para. 8.
- “As early as possible after the close of the one-month nomination period, candidates shall be invited to meet with Members at a formal General Council meeting. Candidates will be invited to make a brief presentation, including their vision for the WTO, to be followed by a question- and-answer period.” Para. 14.
- Months 5 and 6 after initiation, “the General Council shall proceed, through a process of consultations, to narrow the field of candidates and ultimately to arrive at its choice for appointment.” Para. 15.
- The process which is led by the Chair of the General Council and several facilitators, looks to find the candidate “around whom consensus can be built.” Para. 17. Depending on the number of candidates, there can be successive rounds to find candidates least likely to attract consensus who are then expected to withdraw. Para. 18.
- If successful, the Chair of the General Council with the support of the facilitators will “submit the name of the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommend his or her appointment by the General Council.” Para. 19.
- “The process shall conclude with a meeting of the General Council convened not later than three months prior to the expiry of an incumbent’s term, at which a decision to appoint a new Director-General shall be taken.” Para. 7
- If General Council can’t take a decision by consensus, Members can “consider the possibility of recourse to a vote as a last resort.” Para. 20.
The full list of procedures is embedded below (WT/L/509).WTL509
Assuming Amb. Walker sends out a notification in the next day or so, a normal process would result in a General Council decision in the second half of November. If there is a vacancy, the new Director-General should be able to assume responsibilities as soon thereafter as his/her schedule permits, even if not three months after the decision.
Process in 2012-2013
The selection process in 2012 started in December with nine applications received by December 31. The WTO press release showing the candidates and linking to their statements, CVs and other materials is linked here. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news13_e/dgsel_03jan13_e.htm. There was interest by many developing countries in seeing that the selection process kept in mind paragraph 13 of the procedures dealing with representativeness of candidates which states,
“13. In order to ensure that the best possible candidate is selected to head the WTO at any given time, candidatures representing the diversity of Members across all regions shall be invited in the nominations process. Where Members are faced in the final selection with equally meritorious candidates, they shall take into consideration as one of the factors the desirability of reflecting the diversity of the WTO’s membership in successive appointments to the post of Director-General.”
Because the DG slot at the WTO had been filled by three Europeans, one New Zealander and one from Thailand (with Pascal Lamy of France the last DG), many developing countries sought a developing country candidate assuming there were well qualified candidates from many countries. See WT/GC/M/139 at 13-15 (paras. 50 – 60).
Of the nine candidates, eight were from countries that classify themselves as developing countries within the WTO (Ghana, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Kenya, Jordan, Mexico, the Republic of Korea and Brazil). The sole developed country candidate was from New Zealand. All candidates had solid credentials.
Meetings with the candidates by the General Council occurred in late January (29-31) where each candidate was given 15 minutes for an opening statement and then participated in a question and answer session of an hour and fifteen minutes. See, e.g., WT/GC/M/142 (minutes of meeting held on Jan. 29-31) posted 16 May 2013.
Three rounds of consultations were held beginning in early April, with the result that at a General Council meeting on May 14, the Chair of the General Council put forward Roberto Azevedo from Brazil as the candidate most likely to achieve consensus and the General Council agreed. WT/GC/M/144 (minutes of meeting held on May 14) posted 4 July 2013.
Mr. Azevedo then assumed the role of Director-General as of September 1, 2013 and was reappointed for a second four years in 2017.
Prognosis for 2020
One would expect that there will be a number of developed country Members who put forward candidates in the next thirty days on the assumption that the pattern will be developed, developing, developed, developing and Brazil has just completed seven years with their candidate as DG.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, the United Kingdom and one or more member countries from the EU would seem to be possibilities. The U.S. is not included in the list simply because of its prior lack of putting forward candidates and current Administration and Congressional concerns with the WTO, although the U.S. concern with the need for reforms could result in a surprise. The Republic of Korea is not included as it has considered itself a developing country, though it may still put forward a candidate and note that it is not seeking special and differential treatment on current or future negotiations in light of its development. I would be surprised if the United Kingdom puts forward a candidate just based on the serious trade negotiations that the U.K. is engaged in with the EU and the United States and their recent resumption of trade policy responsibilities following Brexit.
Developing countries are not prevented from putting forward candidates, and I assume that there will be some candidates put forward. Singapore would fit a profile similar to Korea in that it has indicated it will not seek special and differential treatment on current or future negotiations. Africa has not had a Director-General selected from among its candidates, and there has been only one Asian candidate selected previously.
What isn’t known is the willingness of the Members to streamline the nomination and selection process to permit a resolution while DG Azevedo is still active. If there are very few candidates, it may be easier for Members to agree to expedited procedures.
With the serious issues facing the world economy and the global trading system, maximum cooperation in selecting a new Director-General would be very important to helping focus a global response and updating of the WTO. Let’s hope that this is an issue on which the membership can agree to act quickly.