The World Trade Organization (WTO) Members made history on 15 February when the General Council agreed by consensus to select Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria as the WTO’s seventh Director-General.
When she takes office on 01 March, Dr Okonjo-Iweala will become the first woman and the first African to be chosen as Director-General. Her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.
Dr Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The General Council decision follows months of uncertainty which arose when the United States of America (US) initially refused to join the consensus around Dr Okonjo-Iweala and threw its support behind Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea. But following Ms Yoo's decision on 05 February 2020 to withdraw her candidacy, the administration of newly elected US President Joseph R. Biden Jr. dropped the US objection and announced instead that Washington extended its “strong support” to the candidacy of Dr Okonjo-Iweala.
The General Council agreed on 31 July 2020 that there would be three stages of consultations held over a two-month period commencing 07 September 2020. During these confidential consultations, the field of candidates was narrowed from eight to five and then two. On 28 October 2020, General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand informed members that based on consultations with all delegations Dr Okonjo-Iweala was best poised to attain consensus of the 164 WTO members and that she had the deepest and the broadest support among the membership. At that meeting, the US was the only WTO member that said it could not join the consensus.
The consultation process undertaken by the Chair and facilitators was established through guidelines agreed by all WTO members in a 2002 General Council decision. These guidelines spelled out that the key criterion in determining the candidate best positioned to gain consensus is the “breadth of support” each candidate receives from the members. During the DG selection processes of 2005 and 2013, breadth of support was defined as “the distribution of preferences across geographic regions and among the categories of members generally recognised in WTO provisions: that is (Least developed countries), developing countries and developed countries”. This same process, agreed by all members in the General Council in 2020, was strictly followed by Chair Walker and his colleagues throughout the 2020-21 DG selection process.
The process for selecting a new Director-General was triggered on 14 May 2020 when former Director-General Mr Roberto Azevêdo informed WTO members he would be stepping down from his post one year before the expiry of his mandate. He subsequently left office on 31 August 2020.
Story by: Riaan de Lange