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Geneva Barometer

by Dr. Olaf Wientzek, Diana Peters, Sarah Ultes, Theresa Landmann

Developments in Geneva’s International Organisations Mid-May 2020 – Mid-July 2020

Things have been heating up in international Geneva since the middle of May: The World Health Organisation (WHO), which continues to fight COVID-19 and to implement the demands of the World Health Assembly (WHA), has had to absorb a serious blow with the US's notice of withdrawal. In the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the race to find a successor to the Director General Azevêdo, who is stepping down on the 31st of August, has gathered momentum. At the same time, day-to-day business is also gaining momentum in the Geneva organisations - among other things, there were several controversial debates at the Human Rights Council.

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World Trade Organisation - Open race for leadership


Following the surprise resignation of WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo on the 31st of August, focus shifted to the question of his successor. By the end of the application period on the 8th of July, a total of eight candidates, three of them women, had submitted their applications. No fewer than three candidates came from Africa: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria), Amina Mohamed (Kenya) and Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt). Further candidates are: Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico), Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea), Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova), Mohamed Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia) and Liam Fox (United Kingdom).

The decision on the candidacy must be taken by consensus. According to the experts, the basic principle is that a candidate must be acceptable to the US, the EU and China at the same time, and must not be blocked by India - a tough obstacle. Accordingly, asides from professional qualifications and political weight, geographical considerations also play a significant role in the choice of candidate: After a Brazilian Director General in the shape of Mr. Azevêdo, some countries called for a candidate from an industrialised country. Conversely it was not only the African group that argued that it was time for the first African Director-General of the WTO. Still others argued that it was high time for the first election of a woman.

Worthy of note: The EU is not putting forward any candidates although the names of several high-ranking people, both women and men, were under discussion. The Irish EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan (EVP), had also for all intents and purposes indicated his interest in the post. However, when the candidature was expected in Geneva, Hogan declared his renouncement. One thing is certain: He would probably have been the most promising European candidate and would also have been in the inner circle of favourites. His choice could not, however, have been considered a foregone conclusion either given the equally strong competition or due to geopolitical considerations. Moreover, there is the threat of an impasse. An agreement is not expected until late autumn or even early 2021 at the earliest. Even though it doesn't have its "own" candidate, it can be assumed that the EU will stand united behind a candidate at the end of the selection process. More than a few European capitals indicated that it was not so much the candidate's origin but above all their vision for a reform of the WTO that was of primary importance. Some observers assume that many EU countries could come out in support of an African candidate.

The race for the position appears to be completely open: Amina Mohamed and, for many, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela are among the easy favourites. Both, especially the former World Bank director Okonjo-Iwaela, are political heavyweights. An important criterion: The future WTO leadership must be in a position to negotiate with the most important heads of state and government on an equal footing. However, the Nigerian candidate, who has long been held as the favourite, is seen as having a lack of trade expertise. Amina Mohamed, on the other hand, has presided over the WTO Ministerial Conference 2015 in Nairobi as Foreign Minister. Both, however, will have to contend with the obstacle of having three candidates from the African group in the race. Yoo Myung-Hee is not far behind. She is followed by Mamdouh and Seade Kuri, both of whom are regarded as excellent specialists and WTO aficionados. In contrast, the comparatively less experienced Ulianovschi is considered an outsider. Al-Tuwajri and the British candidate Liam Fox are also seen as having a lower chance of selection. Although the latter enjoys Washington's demonstrative goodwill, this could actually be a cause for rejection by China, among others. In the EU, enthusiasm for the Brexit hardliner Fox will also be limited.

The high number of candidates as well as the rapid US endorsement of Fox could delay the selection process. It is not unlikely that the WTO leadership will in future be in the hands of a woman (from Africa). However, the selection of candidates could become a battle of attrition, from which a compromise candidate could ultimately emerge.

The candidates now have until the 7th of September to promote their candidacy to the WTO member states. The campaign began with individual press conferences with the candidates on the 15th-17th of July. A three-member panel chaired by New Zealand Ambassador David Walker (Chairman of the WTO General Council) will then hold consultations with member states to determine the most promising candidate. This phase should last a maximum of two months and would therefore end on the 7th of November. However, some observers expect a longer process. For the period following Azevêdo’s resignation, the WTO General Council may appoint one of the four Deputy Directors-General as interim head. The frontrunner would probably be the German Karl Brauner.

The field of candidates is well cast overall - six of the eight candidates were previously ministers, the other two candidates are considered to have excellent knowledge of the subject. The competition is likely to be correspondingly tough. Expectations are high: The candidates must present a credible concept for the reform of the WTO at the round of interviews. Furthermore, Azevêdo’s successor must reform the dispute settlement system and cut Gordian knots in difficult negotiation dossiers - overall a truly Herculean task. Many observers warn that the future of the WTO is at stake in the coming years.

In addition to the debate on personnel, there is also a gradual movement in negotiation dossiers: On the 25th of June, the head of the fisheries working group, Colombia's WTO ambassador Santiago Wills, presented an initial negotiating text. The original aim was to reach an agreement on this dossier in 2020, which is crucial for the sustainability agenda (Agenda 2030).

You can download the complete report as PDF.

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Dr. Olaf Wientzek

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Director of the Multinational Development Policy Dialogue Brussels +32 2 669 31 70


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