The last WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevedo, departed at the end of August. The existing four Deputy Directors-General are overseeing WTO operations awaiting the outcome of the selection process for a new Director-General. While eight candidates were put forward by early July and had two months to “become known” to WTO Members, the process of winnowing down the candidates started in September and has gone through two rounds where the candidate pool went from eight to five to two. Which brings the WTO to the third and final round of consultations by the troika of Chairs of the General Council, Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body with the WTO Membership to find the one candidate with the broadest support both geographically but also by type of Member (developed, developing, least developed).
The third round started on October 19 and will continue through October 27. While the process is confidential, with each Member meeting individually with the troika and providing the Member’s preference, Members can, of course, release information on the candidate of their preference if they so choose.
The two candidates who remain in contention are Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria. While all eight of the candidates who were put forward in June and July were well qualified, Minister Yoo and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala have received high marks from WTO Members from the very beginning. While Minister Yoo has the advantage in terms of trade background, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has an impressive background as a former finance minister, 25 years at the World Bank and her current role as Chair of GAVI.
The procedures for selecting a new Director-General which were agreed to in late 2002 by the General Council put a primary focus on qualifications as one would assume. However, where there are equally well qualified candidates then geographical diversity is specifically identified as a a relevant criteria. There has never been a Director-General from Africa and there has only been one Director-General from Asia (although there was also a Director-General from the Pacific area outside of Asia). With the UN Sustainable Development Goals including one on gender equality (SDG #5), many Members have also been interesting in seeing a Director-General picked from the women candidates. Since both of the two remaining candidates are women, geographical diversity will likely have an outsized role in the third round .
Both remaining candidates are receiving strong support from their home governments in terms of outreach to foreign leaders seeking support for their candidate. The candidates, of course, are also extremely busy with ongoing outreach.
Thus, Minister Yoo traveled back to Europe last week and had a meeting with the EC Trade Commissioner Dombrovskis on October 13, among other meetings. See https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/cldr_20_1935; Yonhap News Agency, Seoul’s top trade official to visit Europe to drum up support her WTO chief race, October 12, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201012003300320?section=business/industry;
Similarly, the Korean President Moon Jae-in, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Nak-yon are engaged in outreach for Minister Yoo’s candidacy. Korea JoongAng Daily, October 12, 2020, Moon, allies intensify campaign for Yoo Myung-hee to head WTO, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2020/10/12/national/politics/Yoo-Myunghee-WTO-Moon-Jaein/20201012172600409.html. Contacts have been made with heads of state or senior officials in Malaysia, Germany, Brazil, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Japan and the U.S. among others. See The Korea Times, October 20, 2020, Government goes all out for Yoo’s WTO election Government goes all out for Yoo’s WTO election, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/10/120_297887.html. President Moon has also raised the issue of support with new ambassadors to Korea — including the German, Vietnamese, Austrian, Chilean, Pakistani and Omani ambassadors. Yonhap News Agency, October 16, 2020, Moon requests support for S. Korea’s WTO chief bid in meeting with foreign envoys, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201016008600315.
Minister Yoo is reported to be having problems in solidifying support from some major Asian Members — including China and Japan — for reasons at least partially separate from her qualifications and is facing what appears to be block support by African WTO Members for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. Thus, broad outreach in Asia, the Americas and in Europe will be important for Minister Yoo if she is to be the last candidate standing on October 28-29.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is similarly receiving strong support from her government where President Muhammadu Buhari indicated full support by the Nigerian government. See The Tide News Online, Ocotber 14, 2020, Buhari Backs Okonjo-Iweala For WTO Job, http://www.thetidenewsonline.com/2020/10/14/buhari-backs-okonjo-iweala-for-wto-job/. Press accounts report that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has the full backing of the African Union as well as support in both the Americas and Asia. See 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. Many have felt that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the candidate to beat, and she is certainly helped by the support of the African Union WTO Members but will also need broad support in the other regions of the world to be the one remaining candidate.
With just eight days to go to the conclusion of the third round of consultations, the remaining two candidates and their governments are turning over every stone in their effort to generate the support needed to come out of the third round as the sole candidate left.
While the candidate announced on October 29 as the remaining candidate still has to be put forward to the General Council for consensus adoption as the new Director-General, it seems unlikely at the moment that either candidate, should she emerge as the preference of the WTO membership, would be blocked by a Member from becoming the next Director-General. While such blockage is always a possibility, the 2002 agreed procedures have prevented such blockage and hopefully will result in a clean conclusion this year as well.
It is certain to be an interesting end of October.
Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.
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