With the WTO’s Director-General Roberto Azevedo stepping down at the end of August, the World Trade Organization’s efforts to select a replacement heat up this week as the one month nominating period comes to an end at the close of business on July 8 in Geneva. The roster of candidates is presently five. While one or more additional candidates could be put forward on July 8th, the most likely scenario is that the five candidates put forward to date will be the slate for evaluation.
When the window for nominations closes tomorrow, the Chair of the General Council, Amb. David Walker (NZ), will transmit a consolidated list of nominees to the WTO membership. The CVs of the five candidates became available on the WTO website under news releases as WTO Members nominated individuals. Thus, Mexico’s Jesus Seade was first to be nominated on June 8 and news of the nomination and his bio are available in the press release that day. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_mex_08jun20_e.htm.
Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the second candidate put forward and was reported on June 9. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_nga_09jun20_e.htm.
Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh was also nominated on June 9th and was so reported that same day as the third candidate. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_egy_09jun20_e.htm.
Moldova submitted the name of Tudor Ulianovschi on June 16th as the fourth candidate for the Director-General slot. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_egy_09jun20_e.htm.
And then the Republic of Korea nominated Yoo Myung-hee on June 24 as the fifth candidate. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_kor_24jun20_e.htm.
The biographies and cover letters from the individual governments are available to WTO Members in a series not available to the public, WT/GC/INF/23-26.
The Chairman of the General Council has set meetings with the candidates for the Director-General position next week, starting on July 15 and continuing on July 16 and 17 as needed. In a communication to delegations on July 1, the Chairman of the General Council outline procedures and time limits for the GC meetings that mirror activities undertaken in the 2013 process. Specifically, each candidate will have 15 minutes to make an opening statement and the WTO Members will have up to 75 minutes to ask questions and receive answers (with the last five minutes to be used by the candidate to provide final comments if he/she so wishes). Members are limited to one question of no more than sixty seconds. Members wishing to ask questions need to notify the WTO and then during the meeting names will be pulled from a box so all delegations have a chance to ask questions. In 2013, generally about 20-25 Members asked questions of any candidate.
In a communication on July 3, the Chair reviewed the timing reviewed above and noted that delegations would be limited to one person each at the meetings for social distancing purposes, though delegations could participate virtually for additional members or for the delegation as a whole if so desired.
If there are just five candidates, then the General Council meetings will likely be limited to July 15 and 16. Nothing will obviously be decided until the nomination window closes. But if there are only five candidates a likely schedule would be to have two candidates interviewed the afternoon of July 15 and three candidates considered on July 16 (one morning, two afternoon).
The timing of the GC meetings with candidates is much quicker than what happened in 2013 when the meetings were 29-31 days after the nomination period closed. This year, the GC meetings will be just 7-9 days after the nomination period closes.
What isn’t known about next steps is how much time candidates will be given to interface with WTO Members not just in Geneva but also in capitals. The procedures adopted back in 2002 for finding a new Director-General envisioned three months after the closing of the nomination process for candidates to engage in outreach to WTO Members. That was to be followed by a two month period for the Chair of the General Council and his/her facilitators to meet with Members to work towards finding a candidate that can achieve consensus support. Stated differently, the procedures adopted in 2002 envisioned the period from the close of nominations to the selection of a new Director-General to be five months or roughly 150 days.
Since the WTO will lose its existing Director-General 54 days after the close of the nominating period, the WTO will either need to shorten both the period for outreach and the period for reaching consensus considerably (by close to 100 days) or will have to also gear up for selecting an Acting Director-General from among the four Deputy Directors-General. It is understood that the Chair of the General Council desires to expedite the remaining process, but it is unclear where the Members will be on a serious reduction in time lines. Factors that are out there will be travel limitations and communication challenges for WTO delegations during the COVID-19 pandemic and the normal August break in activity at the WTO (more specifically, whether Members will agree to work through August on the Director-General issue). Hopefully, there will be clarification on the process agreed to and whether Members need to address selecting an acting Director-General in the next several weeks.
Boxes that different candidates fill
The search for a new Director-General is presumably a search for the most qualified person to take on the task at the given point in time. But there are many qualifications/characteristics that get talked about as potentially relevant or that Members may focus on in deciding which candidate is preferred.
There is in the procedures the characteristic of geographical diversity where candidates are equally qualified. Two candidates are from Africa which has not had a Director-General of the WTO (or of the GATT before it). There has not been a Director-General from North America (though some may view the Mexican candidate from the characteristic of Mexico being a Latin country following the current DG from Brazil). Europe has had many DGs in the WTO and GATT (including Pascal Lamy from France before the current DG); while Moldova has never presented a candidate for DG before, being European could be viewed as a negative by those focused on geographical diversity. There has been one Asian DG, though no one from Korea.
All DGs to date have been men. Two candidates (Nigeria and Korea) are women. The desire to have a woman Director-General at this time could be a consideration for some Members in the DG selection process.
All candidates except the Nigerian candidate have extensive trade backgrounds. While there have been DGs where the DG had no significant trade background, the lack of trade background could be viewed by some Members as a negative for the Nigerian candidate if depth of knowledge of the WTO is considered important at this juncture with the various crises engulfing the WTO.
All candidates except the Egyptian candidate have held high political positions (e.g., ambassador, minister, etc.) in their governments (whether trade or non-trade). For those Members viewing political experience as relevant, this could be a negative for the Egyptian candidate.
Two candidates (Mexico and Nigeria) have extensive experience with other multilateral organizations as well as experience with their home governments. For those who view trade as importantly being interrelated with finances and investment, such experiences could be viewed as a plus for these candidates.
The characteristic of whether a country is a developed or developing country, which has been viewed as relevant by some Members in the past, would seem to be irrelevant if the number of candidates remains at five as all of the candidates are from developing countries based on WTO self-selection (although both Mexico and Korea are OECD members and Moldova is an Eastern European country that has been negotiating with the EU).
Each of the five candidates (and more if additional candidates are put forward tomorrow) will have the chance to present their thoughts on leading the WTO next week to the General Council and to answer questions posed by Members. The WTO Members have important decisions to make on whether to truncate the time for outreach by candidates and the time for consultations with the Chair of the General Council and his facilitators on the selection of a new Director-General. Depending on the timeline agreed to, there may also be the need for WTO Members to select an acting Director-General from the four Deputy Directors-General. Members will likely need to include some engagement during August even if wishing a longer period for selecting the new DG to engage in the selection of an acting DG. Look for a busy summer and possibly rest of 2020 before a new Director-General is in place.