US rejection throws WTO leadership race into confusion

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The World Trade Organisation’s bid to select a new leader was plunged into uncertainty on Wednesday after the United States rejected the Nigerian woman proposed as the global trade watchdog’s next director-general.

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File image. Photo: 123RF

Just six days before the US election in which trade is a hot topic, Washington struck another blow at the WTO, which US President Donald Trump has described as “horrible” and biased towards China.

Washington has already paralysed the WTO’s role as global arbiter on trade by blocking appointments to its appeals panel. Now it threatens to render it leaderless for weeks or months to come.

The WTO itself has called a meeting for 9 November, less than a week after the presidential election, by which time it hopes to have secured full backing for Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The decision needs to be approved by consensus, however, meaning any of the 164 WTO members could block her appointment.

Three WTO ambassadors, the “troika” charged with finding a successor to Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, had decided that the former Nigerian finance minister should be the next chief as she had secured wide cross-regional backing.

“All of the delegations that expressed their views today expressed very strong support for the process, for the troika and for the outcome. Except for one,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters after the closed-door meeting, specifying that the one was the US.

Washington continued to support South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee in the final round of a more than four-month selection process.

Rockwell said there was likely to be “frenzied activity” before the 9 November meeting to secure the required consensus.

It was not immediately clear if the outcome of the US vote would affect the US position on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment. By then, Trump may be heading a lame-duck administration.

Many members, including China and the United States, had declined to name their preference publicly before Wednesday although some African, Caribbean and other states had voiced support for Okonjo-Iweala. The European Union endorsed her on 26 October.

The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Azevedo stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.

Okonjo-Iweala, a 66-year-old former finance minister and World Bank managing director, would face considerable challenges with rival economies bickering amid rising tensions and protectionism during a coronavirus-induced trade plunge.

A development expert, she has branded herself a “do-er” saying she has the political clout to command influence in capitals.

She is chair of the of GAVI vaccine alliance board, and has also said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access Covid-19 drugs and vaccines.

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