Seven candidates battling for WTO leadership

(Clockwise from left) South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Egyptian former diplomat Hamid Mamdouh are among the candidates. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - Seven candidates are vying to become the next head of the beleaguered World Trade Organisation (WTO) - with two entering the race just before the close of nominations on Wednesday. (July 8)

Britain's first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox and Kenya's former WTO general council chair Amina Mohamed threw their hats in the ring in the final hours before the 1600 GMT deadline.

They join candidates from Egypt, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria and South Korea.

The WTO is staging a swift contest to replace outgoing director-general Roberto Azevedo. The Brazilian career diplomat is stepping down a year early at the end of August.

The new leader will be taking on an institution that was beset with mammoth challenges even before the pandemic-driven global economic crisis struck.

"As the world seeks to recover from the shared challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of free and fair trade has never been more crucial," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his letter to the WTO, nominating Fox.

He said the former defence minister, 58, could implement the necessary reforms "to ensure the global trading system truly delivers for all WTO members."

The new chief must revive stalled trade talks, lay the ground for the 2021 ministerial conference - one of the WTO's major events - and thaw relations with Washington.

The United States, which has threatened to leave the WTO, has blocked the organisation's dispute settlement appeal system since December, and wants China moved up from the developing economies category.

In a surprise move in mid-May, Azevedo, 62, announced that he would end his second four-year term early for personal reasons, forcing the Geneva-based WTO's 164 member states to come up with a successor in just three months instead of the usual nine.

Rather than an election, the selection procedure relies on finding consensus, with candidates gradually being eliminated in turn.

The WTO finds itself caught in the middle of rising tensions between the United States and China, and if the process becomes "heavily politicised, that could block things up", a diplomatic source told AFP.

If a consensus cannot be reached in time, one of the four deputy directors-general will take the reins in September on a caretaker basis.


Besides Fox and Mohamed, the other candidates are South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee; Mexico's former WTO deputy director-general Jesus Seade Kuri; former Nigerian foreign and finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Egyptian former diplomat Hamid Mamdouh; and former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi.

Since the WTO was created in 1995, three of its directors-general were from Europe, while one each came from Oceania, Asia and South America.

Africa fancies its chances this time, even though there is no regional rotation principle at the global trade body.

However, African nations have so far failed to convene around a single candidate.

Mamdouh, 67, a veteran former senior WTO official who is also a Swiss national, is the only contender from the continent with any express backing from the African Union.

Nigeria's decision to stand Okonjo-Iweala against him has triggered a legal dispute with the AU.

Nevertheless, Okonjo-Iweala "is gaining ground within Africa," a diplomatic source said.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, who chairs the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said she was receiving "tremendous support".

The former World Bank number two insisted that the WTO - which has never had a female leader - must choose is next chief "on merit".

"And then, if it happens to be a woman or an African, that is also good," she told reporters in Geneva at a virtual press conference in late June.

Kenya's sports minister Mohamed, 58, first ran for the post in 2013. Her candidacy this time means there are three women and three Africans in the contest.

Yoo, 53, is the other female candidate.

The youngest contender is 37-year-old Ulianovschi, while Seade, at 73, is the oldest. He has led posts at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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