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Wanted: New WTO head. Must thrive under global pressure

The global body needs to find a successor by the time current head Roberto Azevedo leaves, or by year's end

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With three of the previous six directors-general from Europe and the others from Thailand, Brazil and New Zealand, there is pressure to choose a leader from Africa, analysts say.

Geneva

AGAINST the backdrop of a global pandemic, steep recession, intensifying US-China tensions and rising protectionism, the World Trade Organization (WTO) needs to name a new leader. Only the resilient, however, should apply.

Brazilian director-general Roberto Azevedo surprised the WTO's 164 members last week by announcing he would quit at the end of August, a year earlier than expected, adding to the tumult facing global agencies amid a backlash against globalisation.

The Geneva-based body ideally needs to find a successor by the time Mr Azevedo leaves, or at least by year's end, when it is set to go into overdrive on a series of issues ahead of its biennial conference in 2021.

That is a tall order for an organisation that has not produced any major international accord in years and decides on a chief by consensus.

Even though the WTO is member-led, a strong, charismatic leader is seen as crucial, particularly when the coronavirus-hit economy faces its worst recession in almost a century and US-China tensions are resurgent.

"These are unprecedented times, and the WTO will need a new playbook if it wants to play any serious role in rebuilding the global economy. What the WTO really needs is a reformer," said Kelly Shaw, a partner at Hogan Lovells and a former senior White House official who worked for the US Trade Representative during Mr Azevedo's selection.

More than 100 trade barriers have been erected since the novel coronavirus outbreak. Some states are questioning their reliance on other countries, notably China, for supply.

US President Donald Trump has ramped up his criticism of the WTO and the World Health Organization (WHO), which he says are too favourable to China. He described the WTO last week as "horrible".

The WHO has rejected criticism it is too close to Beijing. The WTO has not commented publicly.

The US and China, which reached a Phase One trade deal in January, appear back at war, with Washington seeking to block chip supplies to blacklisted telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies.

Washington already crippled the WTO's ability to intervene in trade wars last December after blocking appointments to the WTO body that rules on appeals in disputes.

WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell admitted the director-general's role was "one of the most difficult and demanding jobs there is" with a "daunting dossier" of issues to tackle.

"But we have clear procedures, and I'm sure we will get some outstanding candidates so hopefully things will go smoothly," he said.

With three of the previous six directors-general from Europe and the others from Thailand, Brazil and New Zealand, there is pressure to choose a leader from Africa, analysts said.

Bill Reinsch, a former US Commerce Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there were four possible contenders from Africa.

They are Hamid Mamdouh, an Egyptian attorney at King & Spalding and a former WTO official; Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria, a WTO deputy director-general; Eloi Laourou, Benin's ambassador to the United Nations (UN); and Amina Mohamed, a former Kenyan ambassador to the WTO and now the country's sports minister.

"The issue, as always with Africa, will be whether they can unify behind a single candidate," Mr Reinsch said.

Previous selections for WTO boss have involved what some former officials describe as a "beauty pageant" involving public events and visits for members to vet candidates.

The novel coronavirus makes such in-person meetings difficult. Virtual meetings in the past month at the WTO have suffered from frozen screens and garbled messages.

Other global bodies like the UN have switched to written votes, but WTO members have thrown in the towel, concluding formal decisions could not be made online or in writing.

The formal nomination of candidates has not yet begun but the WTO will want to avoid a repeat of 1999, when New Zealander Mike Moore and Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi split the vote.

Rohinton Medhora, president of Canada-based think tank the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said there would be a "tremendous clash" if Washington and Beijing proposed candidates or sought to play prominent roles in the selection.

A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry said it would defer to "the relevant departments" on the specific task of searching for a new director-general. REUTERS

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