Okonjo-Iweala: My priorities as WTO chief

Nigeria’s candidate for the top job of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said fixing the Geneva-based body’s dispute settlement system would be one of her priorities, if selected as the new chief of the WTO.

Okonjo-Iweala, who is competing with seven other nominees for the position of director-general of the WTO, spoke with Xinhua.

She said her priorities, if selected, would be preparing for the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Kazakhstan in 2021, restoring the dispute settlement system, and updating the WTO’s rule book.

The WTO’s dispute settlement body is currently paralysed. The Appellate Body, considered as the supreme court for global trade disputes, is supposed to have seven judges and needs a minimum of three judges to function.

The U.S. administration has been blocking new appointments for more than two years, with U.S. officials claiming that the court had gone beyond its remit.

“I would be focusing, if I get the job, on the dispute settlement system. Because this is the fundamental pillar of the WTO,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

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“If you have a rules-based organisation, you must have a place where rules are arbitrated and that’s what happens with the dispute settlement system. So restoring that will be a top priority as well.”

Nigeria nominated Okonjo-Iweala, an economist who twice served as Nigeria’s finance minister and briefly acted as foreign minister and had a 25-year career at the World Bank, including as a managing director, for the post of WTO director-general in June.

The candidate, who also sits on the board of Twitter and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, said she was confident to win the selection process and that she would be a listener-in-chief as well as a tough negotiator.

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“I have strong political skills and negotiation skills. I think that’s very much needed. I am a consensus-builder, and I’m a good listener too.”

The candidate showed her confidence to “find a way to unlock the seeming division” on the trade side, between China and the United States, underlining that finding areas of mutual interest and to build trust within the WTO trading system would be important.

“Actually, if you listen to the two members, they have some things in common,” Okonjo-Iweala added.

“The dispute settlement system of the WTO is valued by both, they want it to reform, they don’t want it to disappear.”

Okonjo-Iweala also noted that she hopes China will play the role of an economic growth engine in the current COVID-19 pandemic as it did during the 2008 global financial crisis.

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“I think the best thing China can do is to recover quickly. Because it’s one of the engines of growth in the world and it’s almost a quarter of world trade,” she told Xinhua.

“So if it recovers quickly, it means that it can help the rest of the world recover. So that’s the role I would see for China.”

Roberto Azevedo, the incumbent WTO chief, announced in May that he will officially leave his post on Aug. 31, a year before his term expires.

The second phase of the selection process in which the candidates “make themselves known to members” will end on Sept. 7, and then the General Council chairperson will consult with all WTO members before making the final decision.

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