Hopes for WTO momentum as new boss takes charge

Agnès Pedrero, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 01 2021 04:25 PM

New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks as she stands between WTO Deputy Directors-General Alan Wolff (L) and Karl Brauner upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to take an office in Geneva, Switzerland March 1, 2021. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via Reuters

GENEVA, Switzerland - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes over the World Trade Organization on Monday amid hopes that she will spur the beleaguered body into addressing its towering challenges, including the pandemic-fuelled global economic crisis.

"The WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralyzed and moribund," the first woman and first African to ever lead the global trade body told AFP a day after her nomination last month.

The 66-year-old Nigerian former finance minister takes the helm after the WTO was left adrift for seven months following the sudden departure of Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo last August, a year ahead of schedule.

Following a lengthy selection process, development economist Okonjo-Iweala, who spent 25 years at the World Bank, was finally anointed by the WTO's 164 members on February 15.

From an initial eight candidates, she was the clear favorite among the last two standing in November. However, her appointment was delayed by former US president Donald Trump blocking her nomination.

The arrival of his successor Joe Biden made it possible for her to receive the consensus backing required to end the impasse.

In at the deep end

She is hitting the ground running, with her first day on the job in Geneva coinciding with the annual meeting of WTO's General Council.

Delegates are expected to agree that the organization's next ministerial conference, which had been scheduled for last year but was postponed due to the pandemic, will be held in Geneva in December. 

The question remains whether the new WTO chief, considered a strong-willed trailblazer, will be able to mold the organization in her image before then.

While some observers voice hope that Okonjo-Iweala will inject much-needed energy, others stress she has little wiggle room to make dramatic changes, given that WTO decisions are made by member states -- and only when they can reach consensus.

One of her first tasks will be to nominate four new deputy directors to help recharge the organization's negotiating mechanisms.

Okonjo-Iweala has said that one of her main objectives is to push long-blocked trade talks on fishery subsidies across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference, but with negotiations dragging on, that could be a tough sell.

And in the midst of a global economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, she has plenty of other challenges on her plate.

Okonjo-Iweala has voiced concern about growing protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists trade barriers must be lowered to help the world recover.

Vaccines IP wrangle

Among the issues to be discussed Monday is a controversial push for the WTO to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

Dozens of nations say this would help boost production and access and would rein in the pandemic sooner, but the notion has been fiercely rejected by pharmaceutical giants and the countries that host them.

Okonjo-Iweala chaired the Gavi vaccine alliance before running for the WTO and has made tackling the pandemic another of her priorities.

In a likely bid to avoid a row on day one, Ngozi has called for flexibility, encouraging voluntary licensing agreements, such as the one agreed between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India, whereby the SII factory manufactures the pharmaceutical giant's Covid-19 vaccines.

The Ottawa Group, which brings together the EU and 12 countries including Brazil, Canada and Switzerland, will meanwhile demand that countries commit not to hinder the flow of medical goods during the pandemic, and remove customs duties on those considered essential.

Another daunting challenge facing the new director-general will be following through on her vow to breathe life back into the appeals branch of the WTO's dispute settlement system.

The Appellate Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, ground to a halt in December 2019 after years of relentless US opposition.

The United States, along with European countries and Canada, want an overhaul at the WTO, believing it has not responded correctly to the trade distortions caused by China.

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