Fri, 23 Apr 2021

GENEVA, March 1 (Xinhua) -- The first female and first African director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, officially took office on Monday, ending a six-month "leaderless" period of the organization, after former chief Roberto Azevedo stepped down on Aug. 31, 2020, a year ahead of schedule.

"I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go," she said. On arrival at the WTO's headquarters here, Okonjo-Iweala highlighted the importance of the organization.

Addressing the General Council on her first day in the post, Okonjo-Iweala pledged to "bring all my knowledge, passion, experience and persistence to the task at hand, reforming the organization and achieving results."

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, has served as Nigeria's finance minister twice and briefly acted as foreign minister. She has worked for the World Bank for 25 years, including as managing director for operations.

On Feb. 15, WTO members agreed by consensus to appoint Okonjo-Iweala as the new director-general. Her term, which is renewable, will expire on Aug. 31, 2025.

"It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results," Okonjo-Iweala said. "We have to be more accountable to the people."

Okonjo-Iweala hinted the WTO's upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference, also called MC12, as an immediate opportunity to deliver. "Virtually every delegation mentioned the urgency and importance of MC12 ... Therefore, we must work hard to complete a few deliverables before MC12 so that ministers can focus on ratifying agreements and agreeing best methods for implementation."

The WTO's Ministerial Conference, which is attended by trade ministers and other senior officials from the organization's 164 member states, is the organization's highest decision-making body.

Also at Monday's General Council meeting, WTO members decided that the MC12 will take place "in the week of 29 November 2021" in Geneva. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held on June 8-11, 2020, in Kazakhstan's capital, Nur-Sultan, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In terms of "deliverables" at the MC12, Okonjo-Iweala underlined the need to "prioritize action on COVID-19 both for the immediate and longer term" and to "focus on completing fisheries subsidies negotiations before the middle of the year."

While WTO members continue dialogues on the potential to exempt COVID-19 vaccines from intellectual property rights, the new chief suggested cooperation with vaccine companies "to open up and license more viable manufacturing sites in emerging markets and developing countries" as "an interim solution."

As to the negotiations on fisheries subsidies, Okonjo-Iweala once stressed that an agreement on the issue would be "a win-win for trade and sustainability." "It will signal to the world that the WTO is back, that it is capable of concluding a multilateral agreement vital for current and future generations."

Okonjo-Iweala also underlined the necessity to reach an agreement on the "road map" on how to reform WTO's dispute settlement system, which can be submitted to the MC12 for endorsement.

The Appellate Body, considered as the supreme court for global trade disputes, is supposed to have seven judges and needs a minimum of three to function. It has been paralyzed since Dec. 11, 2019.

"We need to come to a new understanding about how disputes are settled in the WTO," Simon Evenett, professor of International Trade and Economic Development at the University of St. Gallen, said. "The dispute settlement system is about bringing countries back into compliance. There needs to be some where hard thoughts about what can be accomplished there, and not some short-term fix."

The new head of the WTO acknowledged that high expectations for her tenure can only be met if members are willing to compromise and reach agreements, as the WTO is a membership-driven organization.

"Getting countries to work out their differences on a multilateral basis, to refrain from imposing punitive tariffs to each other and to strengthen the role that diplomacy plays in solving disputes, will be absolutely key," Patrick Odier, chairman of the board of directors at Geneva-based bank Lombard Odier, told Xinhua.

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