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Will selection of next WTO chief be fair?

D Ravi Kanth | Updated on July 09, 2020 Published on July 09, 2020

Going by past practices and the hybrid format being used this time due to Covid, the selection process could remain opaque

So, eight candidates have emerged to head the most controversial organisation in the world. Protesters in Seattle in 1999 called it the “Whose Trade Organization”. Otherwise, it is known as the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was established 25 years ago. That the WTO is now drowned in an existential crisis is an understatement. That it has been violently battered by one of its chief architects — the United States — is well known.

That the 164-member body suffered a major loss last year when one of its three pillars called the two-stage dispute settlement body, in which the Appellate Body plays the central role for enforcing global trade rules, dysfunctional was all over the headlines last year. Repeated threats by the global hegemon to walk out of the global trade body are also well-established.

With the Sword of Damocles now hanging on its daily existence, can any of the eight candidates provide leadership to address the unresolved issues raised by the majority of its members drawn from the poorer nations? Or will the victorious candidate consider it his sacred duty to transform the WTO permanently to serve the interests of the US and other developed countries while ignoring the needs of the daridra narayans (a term coined by Gandhiji to describe the lives of the people at the bottom)?

Effectively, the race to replace the incumbent Director General Roberto Azevedo is one about fortifying the organisation into “them” (the US and other developed countries) and “us” (the developing and poorest countries). Of course, the Brazilian incumbent Azevedo deserves credit for turning the WTO into a US-centric body.

Yet, he may have realised that his remaining one year in office will be futile because the WTO is a sinking ship. On Azevedo’s watch the Appellate Body has been decimated. There is bound to be a chapter on his innings from 2013 to 2020 when the history of this organisation during the 21st century is written.

The candidates

Who are these eight candidates vying to replace Azevedo? The first candidate to file papers from the South American region is Mexico’s Under-Secretary for North America Jesus Seade.

From the African region, there are three candidates. They include Egypt’s Abdulhameed Mamdouh, a former WTO official; the former finance minister of Nigeria Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is currently chairing the board for global alliance for vaccines; and Ambassador Amina Mohamed, the former Kenyan trade envoy and cabinet secretary (who had already contested in 2013 and lost in the first round).

The two candidates from the Asian region are: South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee and Saudi Arabia’s economy and planning minister Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri.

And, finally, from the European region there are two candidates in the race — former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi and Britain’s former trade secretary Liam Fox.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to finalise a decision by end-August, there are grave doubts whether the selection process will be transparent.

First, unlike past races, it is being conducted on a hybrid format — in-person meetings and on the virtual platform. The hybrid format does not allow delegates to assess the candidates, their nuanced expressions and body language.

Further, going by past practices, it is safe to say that the selection process could remain utterly opaque.

For example, in 2005, when the Brazilian candidate Ambassador Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa lost in the first round he had sought the figures from the selection panel which included three members — the chair of the WTO’s General Council, the chair of the WTO’s emaciated dispute settlement body, and the chair of the trade policy review body. But the panel flatly refused to share the number of preferences Ambassador Correa secured in the first round. It also happened in 2013, after Ambassador Amina Mohamed of Kenya sought figures after losing in the first round.

The opacity of the selection process stems from the manner in which it is conducted. After the eight candidates contest next week, each member of the WTO will meet the three-member panel in a closed-door confidential setting. During the interactions with the panel, each member will be asked to state their capital’s preference for the eight candidates. Based on those picks/preferences, the panel will decide who among the eight candidates would have crossed the floor based on a criteria — to the second round.

Members can also outright oppose any candidate during the closed-door meeting and, thereby, prevent that candidate from proceeding to the next round. Now, this is where the issue of transparency comes up: Why cannot the panel make it public the criteria adopted for the closed-door meetings and also the number of picks/preferences received by each candidate in each round? Otherwise, doubts will continue to persist about the selection process.

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Published on July 09, 2020
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