WTO Director General Confirmation Gets Side-Tracked

WTO Director General nameplate on desk in front of microphone
Saving the seat
Nov 05, 2020
WASHINGTON, DC -- Last week the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its final candidate for the recently vacated Director General seat.  Okonjo-Iweala has garnered the widest coalition of support from WTO member countries, including endorsement from the European Union.  She entered the race with a strong background of both political and economic experience and if confirmed, she will be the first female Director General of the WTO, as well as the first from an African nation.

However, the confirmation process for Okonjo-Iweala is unlikely to proceed smoothly for two primary reasons.  First, new COVID-19 precautions were implemented in Geneva this week.  On November 1, local Geneva authorities announced new lockdown measures to fight a surge of infections and hospitalizations taking place in the city, prohibiting public and private events of more than five people from November 2 through November 29.  

A general council meeting to make a formal decision on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment is currently scheduled for November 9 at WTO headquarters in Geneva, but with these new restrictions in place, senior WTO officials are discussing whether to postpone their plan to make a formal decision on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment next week.

The final confirmation of a new DG also may be delayed by the United States’ strong opposition to the choice of Okonjo-Iweala, and its support of the other semi-finalist, Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.  The U.S. is the only opposing voice, with 26 other delegations supporting the WTO’s process and final selection.

In a statement released after the WTO announcement, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared:  “The United States supports the selection of Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee as the next WTO Director-General.  Minister Yoo is a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker.  She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization...The WTO is badly in need of major reform.  It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”

It remains to be seen how the United States’ dissent and COVID-19 will impact the final selection, but regardless of the outcome, the new DG will face a long list of challenges when she steps into the role.