Director-General of the World Trade Organization steps down unexpectedly

The director-general of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, announced on May 14, 2020, that he will be cutting his term short by one year and stepping down as of August 31. Azevêdo has served in the position since September 1, 2013, with his second term starting in 2017.

Azevêdo’s tenure has seen the organization face some landmark moments, including the adoption and entry into force of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, which was the first global trade accord since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round, as well as the expansion of the Information Technology Agreement among some members.

More recently, the WTO has also encountered significant obstacles, including the highly acrimonious ministerial conferences of Nairobi and Buenos Aires in 2015 and 2017, respectively, and political challenges to the institution’s relevance and functioning. Perhaps most notable among these struggles has been the refusal of the United States to approve the start of selection processes for new members of the WTO’s Appellate Body or renew the terms of existing members.

The Appellate Body has thereby lacked a quorum to hear members’ appeals of a WTO panel’s decision, and has effectively been paralyzed, fuelling deep concerns over the health of the multilateral trading system without a fully functioning dispute settlement mechanism. Various members have since launched a “multi-party interim arrangement” that would allow for arbitration to take place among themselves in cases that have reached the appeals stage until a solution is found for the Appellate Body crisis.

In his farewell announcement, which came as a shock to trade circles, Azevêdo instead focused on the organization’s future, including the importance of preparing for the organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, which he called a “stepping stone to the future of the WTO” that should lay the foundations for reform. Indeed, Azevêdo characterized his decision to step down as partly due to concerns that the politics of the replacement process not interfere with preparations for the upcoming conference, which had previously been planned for June 2020 and is now expected in 2021.

He further noted that, as the organization’s activities have slowed due to the global pandemic, this is an opportune moment to initiate the process of choosing his successor.

Members must now move to nominate possible successors, which is then followed by the candidates outlining their visions to the General Council and an intense period of consultations to whittle down the list of candidates until consensus can be reached. Ordinarily, this process takes place in the nine months preceding the end of an incumbent’s term, with the final decision confirmed by the WTO’s General Council. Possible contenders for the position reportedly include Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s former trade minister, who ran for the post against Azevêdo and seven others in 2013 and later chaired the WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, and Peter Mandelson, a UK national who was formerly the  trade commissioner of the EU.

Arancha González, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Affairs and Cooperation is also considered a possible successor, given her previous experience as Executive Director of the International Trade Center and chief of staff to Pascal Lamy during his tenure as WTO Director General.

As of June 10, registered nominations include Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt, Jesús Seade Kuri of México y Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria.More nominations are expected to be announced by July 8.

The process for choosing a successor may be complicated, however, in light of current coronavirus restrictions in Switzerland. WTO members have been meeting virtually during the pandemic, and various members have said that they are uncomfortable taking binding decisions through virtual platforms. These restrictions were relaxed in June, though whether the changes will be sufficient for the WTO to resume all normal operations remains unclear.