Through September 2021, when a country went through a Trade Policy Review, a large amount of material was made available to the public at the time of the TPR meeting with additional information (minutes, questions and answers, corrections to Secretariat report and/or government report) released a number of months later. The WTO press releases at the time of the TPR meeting were similar. The one for Singapore from 22 and 24 September 2021 is typical.
As can be seen from the press release, the public could access the full report of the Secretariat, the full report of the Government of Singapore, the concluding comments of the Chairperson as well as an Executive Summary of the Secretariat report at the time of the two day meeting to review the reports. Moreover, minutes from the meeting were available to the public typically about six weeks after the meeting as were the written questions and written answers.
Beginning in October, the press release has been modified and far less information is made available immediately to the public. There have been two TPRs so far in October, the Republic of Korea (13 and 15 October) and China (20 and 22 October). A TPR of the Russian Federation is scheduled for next week.
The WTO press release for the Republic of Korea is copied below. The current one for China is similar.
There is nothing on the WTO webpage which describes why so little information is being provided beginning this month on new Trade Policy Reviews. For the public, the drastic reduction in transparency makes the WTO operations even less understandable.
If the WTO will be releasing all of the documents it has historically but with significant time delays on all documents, what is the justification? For 25 years, TPRs have been conducted with the type of information released that gave the public a good understanding of the Secretariat’s and the government’s review of its trade policy. That understanding has been timely, consistent with the meeting and supplemented within several months with minutes and the written questions and answers.
If the WTO is not intending on releasing all of the documents it has historically released, what is the possible justification?
China, which is going through a Trade Policy Review this week, also went through a TPR in 2018. In 2018, the Secretariat Report released to the public at the time of the TPR meeting was 193 pages (along with a summary of 6 pages). See WT/TPR/S/375. China’s Report on its trade policy was 23 pages. See WT/TPR/G/375. These documents are dated 6 June 2018. A revision to the Secretariat Report is dated 14 September 2018 and was also 193 pages ( WT/TPR/S/375/Rev.1). The Concluding remarks by the Chairperson are contained in a separate press release from the WTO at the time of the TPR meeting but linked from the main notice of the TPR. See WTO news, Trade Policy Review: China, 11 and 13 July 2018, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp475_e.htm linking to the concluding remarks of the Chairperson at https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp475_crc_e.htm. The minutes of the meeting are contained in WT/TPR/M/375, 21 November 20218 and are 98 pages in length with statements from 66 Members (two on behalf of larger groups). The written questions and answers are contained in WT/TPR/M/375/Add.1, dated 1 February 2019 and being 729 pages in length. The WTO Members who submitted questions (including follow-up questions) are shown on pages 2-3 of the document.
Because the current TPR on China (20 and 22 October) does not provide either of the full reports (Secretariat and Government) and because there is no indication of when minutes or written questions and answers will be available, there is certainly delayed access and potentially denial of access of the same type of information on China (or any other country) that was been released in the past. This should be viewed as unacceptable by the WTO Secretariat and WTO Members and certainly should be so viewed by the public.
What is available to the public from a Trade Policy Review is critical for an understanding of concerns raised by WTO Members about any other Member’s trade policy as well as the level and openness of the response from the Member being reviewed. The Secretariat’s report is an important factual analysis of developments in the Member being reviewed. The recent curtailment of access to the full Secretariat Report and the full Government Report greatly harms transparency and the ability of the public to understand developments within WTO Members in a timely manner. Should the WTO cease to release any of the information heretofore available to the public in current and future TPRs, the WTO will be further damaging the public’s perception of the WTO and will be further retreating from openness and transparency towards the public..
With the current WTO Director-General, Robert Azevedo, stepping down at the end of August, the WTO is a little more than one month into the selection process for a new Director-General. The process is envisioned normally to take nine months of which six months deal with nominations, candidate outreach to WTO Members, and consultations by the WTO’s Chair of the General Council (with the assistance of the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body) with WTO Members to find a candidate for whom consensus is possible and a General Council meeting to confirm the selection of a new Director-General. Because of the approaching departure of the current Director-General, the WTO is examining whether the process of selecting a new Director-General (“DG”) can be accelerated. To the extent the process is not concluded before DG Azevedo departs, the WTO will select an acting Director-General from among the four Deputy Directors-General.
Phase 1, Nominations
Phase 1 of the WTO Director-General selection process came to an end on July 8, one month after the process started on June 8 as the window for WTO Members to nominate candidates from their country/territory came to an end at the close of business on July 8th. Eight WTO Members provided nominations to the WTO. The Member and candidate in the order of nomination at the WTO are reviewed below along with the date that the WTO posted a press release on the nomination (with official bio submitted).
Phase 2, Candidates Making Themselves Known to the WTO Members
After the close of the nomination window, normal procedures provide three months for candidates to “make themselves known to Members”. This phase 2 of the selection process starts with a WTO General Council meeting at which each candidate is given time to make an opening statement and for Members to ask questions and receive answers. The General Council meeting is followed and preceded by candidates and their nominating governments doing outreach to WTO Members in Geneva and in capitals around the world.
A. General Council meeting
In the 2012-2013 selection process, the General Council meeting took three days and occurred 29-31 days after the close of the nomination phase. Each candidate had 15 minutes for an opening statement followed by 75 minutes of questions and answers with the last five minutes of the 75 minutes reserved to the candidate to make a summing up if desired. Members wishing to ask a question notified the WTO in advance for each candidate for which they wished to be considered to ask a question and their names were included in a box from which names were drawn. Questions were limited to one minute maximum, with no follow-up questions allowed. Each candidate was offered the opportunity to meet with the media immediately after the meeting with the General Council.
In the current selection process, the WTO is proceeding in the same manner with the same time allocations and same opportunity to meet press, though the timing of the General Council meeting has been moved up as part of a process to expedite the overall selection process. The General Council will meet 7-9 days after the close of the nominating period, the meetings being over three days, July 15-17.
On Friday, the specific schedule was announced. Candidates are heard in the order in which their nominations were received by the WTO. Below is the schedule of meetings for candidates with the General Council (each meeting is 90 minutes) followed by a press conference, assumed to occur within 15 minutes of the close of the meeting with the General Council. The press conferences will be webcast live on the WTO website and will be archieved, as they were in 2013.
Date at GC
Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico)
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)
Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mumdouh (Egypt)
Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi (Rep. of Moldova)
H.E. Yoo Myung-ee (Rep. of Korea)
Amb. Amina C. Mohamed (Rep. of Kenya)
Mr. Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
Dr. Liam Fox (United Kingdom)
B. Length of period of outreach by candidates
The Chair of the WTO’s General Council on the 10th of July announced that Members had agreed to truncate the phase 2 outreach by candidates from three months to two months, ending September 7. See General Council Chair Walker announces timelines for next stages of DG selection process, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_10jul20_e.htm.
Phase 3, Consultations with WTO Members on Candidate Best Placed to Attract Consensus
The final phase of the selection process is one in which the WTO’s Chair of the General Council along with the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body consult with all WTO Members “to assess preferences and seek to determine which candidate is best placed to attract consensus support.” Id. This phase is to be completed within two months with a General Council meeting to consider and (hopefully) adopt the recommendation of the candidate put forward by the General Council Chair (by November 7 in the current selection process).
In 2013, when there were nine candidates, the consultation process involved three rounds of consultations, with those candidates with the least likelihood of generating consensus being asked to withdraw after each round so a recommendation could be made.
With eight candidates in the current selection process, multiple rounds of consultations will almost certainly be needed. It is unlikely that the process will be completed significantly in advance of the two month deadline.
The procedures adopted in 2002 provide for the option, if needed, to go to voting, though that is a last resort and has not been used to date.
Hopefully, resolution of the selection of the next Director-General will happen by early November. While the procedures for selection envision a three month period after selection before the new Director-General assumes his/her position at the WTO, the three months is premised on there being a Director-General whose term ends in three months. In the current situation where the Director-General departs at the end of August, the new Director-General will presumably take office immediately and General Council adoption of his/her nomination.
Need for an Acting Director-General for the Period September 1 – early November
According to the Procedures for the Appointment of Directors-General adopted by the General Council on 10 December 2002 (WT/L/509, para. 23),
“In the event of a vacancy in the post of Director-General, the General Council shall designate one of the existing Deputy Directors-General to serve as Acting Director-General until the appointment of a new Director-General.”
As this post is being written, there are just 51 days until there is a vacancy in the post of Director-General. Since the timing for completion of the selection process will run several months past the departure of Director-General Azevedo, the General Council has in front of it the additional need to designate one of the existing Deputy Directors-General to serve as the Acting Director-General.
While the 2002 procedures for designating an acting Director-General have not been used before now, it is understood that the Chair of the General Council is consulting with Members now on the issue and will likly include the topic in the agenda for the General Council meeting scheduled for July 22-23. Selection of an acting Director-General is presumably done by consensus as well.
While the role of an acting Director-General is understood to be largely administrative (being available to pay bills, manage Secretariat issues, keep the organization functioning while awaiting the completion of the selection process) and even though Deputy Directors-General act independent of their national origin, it is unclear how political considerations will be at play in the designation of an acting Director-General. For example, with three candidates from African countries for the post of Director-General (including one from Nigeria) would the designation of Yonov Frederic Agah (a Nigerian) as acting Director-General be viewed as harmful or helpful to the chances of the one or more of the African candidates since an African would be serving in the acting position? Similarly, with the differences in views of the WTO’s path forward between the U.S., China and Europe, will one ore more of the three other Deputy Directors-General be viewed as unacceptable to one or more of the majors? If there are political complications affecting the designation of an acting Director-General, what spillover effects will such tensions on the acting designation have in achieving a smooth resolution on the selection process of a new Director-General? We will likely find out whether the designation process is smooth or complicated in the next several weeks.
The selection process for the next WTO Director-General is in a very active stage. The Chair of the General Council has worked with the WTO Members to expedite the process to the extent acceptable to Members. Such expedition will result in at least one month cut off of the six month period from the start of nominations to the selection of a new Director-General, with resolution due by November 7 at the latest.
All of the eight candidates will be in Geneva next week for their meetings with the General Council during July 15-17. There is a shortened period for candidates to do outreach to WTO members so the rest of July, all of August and the first week of September will be hectic for the candidates and their governments with some in person meetings and many virtual meetings during this time.
When Phase 3 kicks in in early September, the General Council’s Chair along with the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body will be involved in the time-consuming task of consultations with Members as they work to find a consensus candidate for the Director-General post. In 2013, those efforts took three rounds of consultations to go from nine candidates to one who was recommended to the General Council and accepted by consensus. It is assumed this year, the challenges will be comparable and will likely take three rounds (8 candidates to 4 to 2 to recommendation may be the path consultations take).
Because the current Director-General, Roberto Azevedo, will be stepping down on August 31, the WTO, for the first time since the General Council adopted procedures for selecting new Directors-General at the end of 2002, will need to designate an acting Director-General from the four existing Deputy Directors-General. While the designation process may prove to be uneventful, in a time of significant dysfunction within the WTO because of dramatically different views of the operation of the WTO and reform needs by many Members, there is at least the chance for the designation process to become complicated and to make more difficult the ability to reach consensus on a new Director-General.
Considering the severe challenges facing the WTO and the complications flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic, selecting a strong Director-General in a process that flows without major incident is an important hoped-for outcome in the remainder of 2020.