The future direction of the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) hinges not only on the consensus agreement of the Members in appointing the WTO’s next Director-General, but also on the ability of that Director-General to forge a path forward to resolve the myriad issues currently facing the organization.

In August of this year, Roberto Azevêdo stepped down from his position as WTO Director-General, leaving his post open and eight candidates from around the globe in the running.  After months of campaigning, this pool was narrowed to two candidates: Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. On 28 October 2020, the WTO Committee Chairs of the selection process announced that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala was the candidate with the widest support. However, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala must be formally appointed by consensus by the General Council; a prospect that remains tenuous in light of the opposition of the United States. The United States was the only WTO Member to say that it would not support Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, but instead has reiterated that Minister Yoo “must” lead the WTO.  See USTR Statement on the WTO Director-General Selection Process.

In circumstances where recourse to a vote is a “last resort” for the WTO Members, and an “exceptional departure from the customary practice of decision-making by consensus”, the position of the United States once again plunged the WTO into uncertainty.  See WTO Director-General Selection Process Documents. On 6 November 2020, the Chair of the General Council of the WTO delayed the 9 November 2020 meeting to appoint a Director-General “until further notice”, citing “the health situations and current events” (presumably referring to the U.S. election, the results of which were uncertain at that time). See Communication from the General Council Chair.  The Chair will now continue to undertake consultations with delegations, in the hope that consensus can be reached without recourse to a vote.  See Congressional Research Service Report on the Selection of a New WTO Director-General.

Regardless, it is clear that a new Director-General will have a challenging road ahead; least of all in establishing a more constructive working relationship with the new U.S. administration, and uniting the WTO Membership to address current concerns and upcoming challenges. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has stressed the need for the next WTO leader to work “proactively”, viewing the Director-General’s role as one of “enabling” Members to implement priorities. Ms Okonjo-Iweala considers these priorities to be addressing the pandemic recovery and the Appellate Body paralysis, as well as agreeing to a deal on curbing fisheries subsidies.  See Report on Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s Proactive Agenda; Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s Statement to the WTO General Council. Minister Yoo has also reiterated the need for the next Director-General to be an “effective, trusted, and informed facilitator” to help achieve consensus and agreement. Minister Yoo has stated that her priorities for the WTO are the 12th Ministerial Conference, including a successful outcome on fisheries subsidies, e-commerce and development issues; the restoration of the dispute settlement system; and the promotion of trade initiatives encompassing sustainable development.  See Minister Yoo’s Statement to the WTO General Council.

Whether the next Director-General is Ms. Okonjo-Iweala or Minister Yoo, it is evident that addressing the paralysis of the dispute settlement system is a priority. However, given current reports that the WTO Ministerial is likely to be pushed until December 2021 as a result of ongoing pandemic-related uncertainty, and given the new U.S. administration, continuing instability at the WTO seems unavoidable in the coming year.  See Report, WTO Ministerial Likely to be Pushed to December 2021.