African Union

WTO Director-General selection process doesn’t generate immediate consensus

The troika of WTO Chairs (of the General Council, Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body) met with the WTO heads of delegation on October 28 to review the results of the third round of consultations with Members as part of the long process of selecting the next Director-General. The meeting which was scheduled for 3 p.m. Geneva time, started after 3:15 p.m. and resulted in at least temporary challenges.

The two remaining candidates for consideration during the third round were Korea’s Minister for Trade, H.E. Yoo Myung-hee and Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Both are considered highly qualified though with very different backgrounds — trade for Minister Yoo; development economics and finance for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. Both candidates received strong support from their host governments in terms of politic outreach.

Amb. David Walker, the Chair of the General Council, announced that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has emerged from the third round as the candidate most likely to attract consensus among the Members, and it is understood that she received broad support. Press articles have indicated support from WTO Members of the African Union, support from the countries part of the European Union and other support in the Americas and Asia, including China and Japan. Thus, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala may have been the preferred candidate for more than 100 of the 164 WTO Members.

Minister Yoo reportedly had the support of the United States, many countries in Asia and other support from the Americas and elsewhere.

The actual support of each candidate is not released by the WTO as consultations are confidential, though individual governments are, of course, free to identify which candidate they preferred.

Importantly, the Republic of Korea did not withdraw Minister Yoo’s candidacy and the U.S. has indicated it continues to support Minister Yoo, which means that at least for the moment there is not a consensus for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Presumably the troika will continue to consult with Korea and the United States to see if they can get those Members to support the potential consensus behind Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. The procedures adopted by the General Council in late 2002 indicate that the troika should be submitting the name of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to the General Council recommending her appointment by the General Council:

“At the end of the final stage of the consultative process, the Chair, with the support of the facilitators, shall submit the name of the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommend his or her appointment by the General Council.”

Procedures for the Appointment of Directors-General, Adopted by the General Council on 10 December 2002, WT/L/509 (20 January 2003), para. 19.

Because of the present positions of Korea and the United States, it is likely that Amb. Walker will delay calling a General Council meeting in the hope of obtaining clearance of the current blockage. At some point, Amb. Walker will presumably call the General Council meeting so Members have to be on the record as opposing consensus. As a last resort, Amb. Walker and his facilitators can have the General Council vote to select the next Director-General. Id, para. 20.

Recourse to voting as a last resort

“20. If, after having carried out all the procedures set out above, it has not been possible for the General Council to take a decision by consensus by the deadline provided for the appointment, Members should consider the possibility of recourse to a vote as a last resort by a procedure to be
determined at that time. Recourse to a vote for the appointment of a Director-General shall be understood to be an exceptional departure from the customary practice of decision-making by consensus, and shall not establish any precedent for such recourse in respect of any future decisions in the WTO.”

The deadline for the appointment under existing procedures, is November 7, 2020. Id, para. 15. It is unclear what the objection is for the United States to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, although press accounts have indicated that the U.S. has concerns about Dr. Okonjo-Iweala based on her work with U.S. officials with significantly different views on trade policy than the current U.S. Administration. It is also not clear why Korea’s candidate would not follow the agreed procedures for appointment of Directors-General and withdraw in light of the preferences expressed to the troika during the third round.

Conclusion

The WTO has been fortunate to have very strong candidates put forward to be considered as the next Director-General. Minister Yoo is highly qualified and had a strong presentation of views and intended approach for leading the WTO forward.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala with her service as Minister of Finance twice for Nigeria and twenty-five years experience at the World Bank, background in development economics, and service as Chair of GAVI brings a wealth of experience at high levels of government and multilateral organizations. She is also a candidate from Africa, a continent that has not to date had a Director-General of the WTO. As stated in the General Council’s procedures for appointing Directors-General,

Representativeness of candidates

“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.”

There has been a prior WTO Director-General from Asia, which may have been a consideration for some WTO Members in providing their preference for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala instead of Minister Yoo in the third round.

It is obviously unfortunate that a process that has worked smoothly so far in 2020, has developed the current set of challenges from Korea and the U.S. Hopefully, the challenges will be addressed and a consensus reached in the next nine days. The correct outcome at this point is for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to be the next Director-General, the first female Director-General and the first African Director-General.

If the unexpected holdup in concluding the selection process can be resolved, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will hopefully be up to the daunting task that awaits the next Director-General. Success will depend on the willingness of Members to find common ground and address the need for reform and updating the rule book — clearly a herculean challenge considering the very different views of major Members and different groups of Members. But the WTO needs a leader who can help Members find the path forward, be an honest broker, help Members restore confidence in the organization and ensure trade issues can be effectively addressed within the organization, help ensure engagement by all, and be able to engage with governments at a political level and with other multilateral organizations to achieve meaningful participation by all. The global trading system needs a strong and relevant WTO. Time will tell if Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will be that leader. Let’s hope that the next Director-General will succeed.

WTO Director-General selection — press reports EU, Japan join those supporting Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria

With the third round of consultations concluding on Tuesday, October 27, press reports indicate that Japan will be supporting the Nigerian canadidate and the EU, after extended internal debate, has apparently agreed to support Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria as well. See The Japan Times, October 26, 2020, Japan decides against backing South Korean for WTO chief, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/10/26/business/japan-south-korea-nominee-wto/; Politico, October 26, 2020, EU backs Nigerian candidate for WTO top job, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-backs-nigerian-candidate-for-wto-top-job/.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has received the backing of the WTO Members of the African Union and reportedly several dozen other Members from the Americas and Asia. See, e.g., RTL Today, October 19, 2020, ‘I feel the wind behind my back’: Nigerian WTO candidate, https://today.rtl.lu/news/business-and-tech/a/1596831.html.

Some press article have suggested that China is also likely to support the Nigerian candidate, although there has not been formal confirmation to date and some articles have suggested China may have problems with each of the two remaining candidates. See, e.g., South China Morning Post, October 8, 2020, China faces ‘difficult trade-off’ as WTO leadership race heads into final round, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3104712/china-faces-difficult-trade-wto-leadership-race-heads-final.

The United States has been reported in the press as supporting Minister Yoo Myung-hee from the Republic of Korea. Bloomberg (article in Swissinfo.com), October 21, 2020, Global Trade-Chief Race Slows as U.S., EU Split on Finalists, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/bloomberg/global-trade-chief-race-slows-as-u-s—eu-split-on-finalists/46110158.

It is also known that the President of Korea and other senior officials within the Korean government have been actively reaching out to WTO Members to encourage support of Minister Yoo in the third round. See, e.g., Yonhap News Agency, October 20, 2020, Moon requests support from 2 nations for S. Korean candidate’s WTO chief bid, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201020009151320; The Korea Times, October 20, 2020, Government goes all out for Yoo’s WTO election, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201020009151320.

What do the news articles portend?

Assuming the support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is as broad and deep as is being reported, the Nigerian should be the candidate who is announced by the troika in the WTO (Chairs of the General Council, Dispute Settlement
Body and Trade Policy Review Body) as the candidate most likely to achieve consensus from the membership at an informal heads of delegation. If there is no opposition from a Member or Members suggesting blockage of consensus, the informal heads of delegation meeting could be set for as early as Thursday, October 29, with a General Council meeting to confirm the selection held that afternoon or on the 30th of October. If one or more Members indicates a likelihood of blockage of consensus, it is likely that the informal heads of delegation meeting would not occur on the 29th to give the troika the opportunity to work with those threatening blockage to attempt to achieve consensus. See October 9, 2020:  October 8th video discussion on WTO Director-General selection process following the announcement of two finalists, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/09/october-8th-video-discussion-on-wto-director-general-selection-process-following-the-announcement-of-two-finalists/ (video from WITA; see comments of Amb. Rufus Yerxa, President of the National Foreign Trade Council).

Under the procedures adopted in late 2002 for the selection of a Director-General if there is a failure to achieve consensus, Members could select the Director-General based on a vote. To date, voting has not been required. Hopefully, the same will be true in this selection as well. If so, it appears that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will be the next Director-General of the WTO.