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Explainer: How the next WTO chief will be chosen and the task ahead

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured in front of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva
FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured in front of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva

GENEVA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Five candidates from Nigeria to South Korea are bidding to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization to replace Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down at the end of August.

CHALLENGES

The next chief will broker international trade talks in the face of widening U.S.-China conflict, protectionism increased by the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure to reform trade rules.

U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" policies have upended the global trading order and presented an existential threat to the WTO. Trump has called the institution "broken" and "horrible". His administration has blocked appointments to the WTO's Appellate Body that settles trade disputes, which now no longer has the minimum number of judges to convene.

HOW THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL IS CHOSEN

An initial eight candidates were were given two months to campaign until September 7. Normally this would involve trips to national capitals, but with the pandemic much of that is being done in a virtual format.

The field was cut to five in September and will be whittled down to two in October before a final decision is taken.

The WTO is a members-driven organisation with decisions reached by consensus among 164 countries. Three WTO ambassadors who chair leading committees are leading the process, seeking to establish which candidates have the widest support.

In so-called "confessionals", ambassadors step into a WTO room and tell their preferences to this "troika" whose faces appear on a screen due to COVID restrictions. The choices are not ranked and without vetoes.

The second round takes plase on Sept 24-Oct 6. Voting on the next director-general is seen only as a last resort if consensus cannot be reached.

The process does not always work smoothly. In 1999, former New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore and Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi divided WTO members, with a compromise finally found to give each a term, shortened to three years from four.

Azevedo's term finished before his replacement takes office, but WTO members failed to agree on a temporary caretaker director-general, meaning the four deputies are staying on in their current roles.

MORE SOFT THAN HARD POWER

The Marrakesh Agreement that established the WTO in 1995 does not give a detailed description of the director-general role. The responsibilities should be "exclusively international in character".

The incoming chief will be expected to appoint four new deputies, present budget proposals, and chair the trade negotiations committee which oversees multilateral accords such as on fishing subsidies.

The director-general can also intervene in trade disputes, in very rare cases offering mediation, more often by appointing people to adjudicating panels when parties cannot agree.

Otherwise, the director-general does not forge global trade policy, but is meant to act as a neutral broker: part administrator, part peacemaker.

(Reporting by Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Raissa Kasolowsky)