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Hopes for WTO momentum as a new president takes charge

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria is set to go down in history as the first woman to head the World Trade Organization. (AP photo)

GENEVA: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes over the presidency of the World Trade Organization on Monday amid hopes that it will stimulate the beleaguered body to meet its formidable challenges, including the global economic crisis fueled by the epidemic.

“The World Trade Organization is so important that it does not allow it to be slowed down, paralyzed and dying,” the first woman and the first African to take over the presidency of the World Trade Organization told AFP a day after her nomination last month.

Nigeria’s 66-year-old former finance minister takes over as prime minister after the World Trade Organization was set aside for seven months after the sudden departure of Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevedo last August, a year ahead of schedule.

After a lengthy selection process, development economist Okonjo-Iweala, who spent 25 years at the World Bank, was finally appointed by the WTO’s 164 members on February 15.

Of the eight primary candidates, she was clearly the favorite among the last two candidates in November. However, her appointment was delayed due to the rejection of former US President Donald Trump.

The arrival of his successor, Joe Biden, allowed her to gain the unanimous support needed to end the impasse.

In the deep end

She is working on the ground, her first day on the job in Geneva coincides with the annual meeting of the General Council of the World Trade Organization.

Delegates are expected to agree that the next OIC Ministerial Conference, which was scheduled to take place last year but has been postponed due to the pandemic, will take place in Geneva in December.

The question remains whether the new WTO chairwoman, considered a strong-willed leader, will be able to shape the organization in her own image before then.

While some observers express their hope that Okonjo-Iweala will inject much-needed energy, others assert that it does not have much room to maneuver for radical change, given that WTO decisions are taken by member states – and only when they can reach consensus. .

One of its first tasks will be to appoint four new deputy directors to help recharge the organization’s negotiation mechanisms.

Okonjo-Iweala said one of her main goals is to push the long-stalled trade talks on fisheries support across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference, but as negotiations go on, this could be a tough sell.

And in the midst of the global economic crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, it faces many other challenges.

Okonjo-Iweala has expressed concern about the rise in protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists that trade barriers should be lowered to help the world recover.

Controversial IP vaccines

Among the issues to be discussed on Monday is a controversial push for the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

Dozens of countries say this would help boost production and reach and curb the epidemic sooner, but the idea has been vehemently rejected by drug giants and the countries that host them.

Okonjo-Iweala chaired the Gavi Vaccine Alliance before running for the World Trade Organization and made tackling the pandemic a priority.

In a possible attempt to sidestep disagreement on the first day, Ngozi called for flexibility, encouraging voluntary licensing agreements, such as the one agreed between AstraZeneca and India’s Serum Institute, in which SII manufactures Covid-19 vaccines from the pharmaceutical giant.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Group, which includes the European Union and 12 countries including Brazil, Canada and Switzerland, will demand that countries commit not to impeding the flow of medical goods during the pandemic and to abolish customs duties on those deemed necessary.

Another daunting challenge facing the new Director-General is to pursue her pledge to breathe life into the Appeals Branch of the WTO’s dispute settlement system.

The appellate body, sometimes called the Supreme Court of World Trade, was halted in December 2019 after years of relentless US opposition.

The United States, along with European countries and Canada, wants a comprehensive reform of the World Trade Organization, believing that it has not properly responded to the trade distortions caused by China.

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