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Damaged WTO now leaderless as chief Azevedo steps down

By Reuters | September 1st 2020
By Reuters | September 1st 2020

World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Roberto Azevedo gestures during a press conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, on January 20, 2017 in Davos. [AFP]  

The World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Drector Geral Roberto Azevedo stepped down yesterday, leaving the already-damaged global watchdog leaderless as it faces the biggest crisis in its 25-year history.

As the WTO’s influence seeps away, rising international tensions and protectionism during a Covid-19 slowdown, most obviously between China and President Donald Trump’s US administration, make reform of global trade rules ever more urgent.

“This is indeed a new – though alas not unsurprising – low point for the WTO,” said Rohinton Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). “The organisation has been directionless for some time, several years in fact, and will now be functionally leaderless.”

In particular, the WTO Appeals Court, which rules on international trade disputes, has been paralysed by Washington’s blockade on the appointment of new judges. Azevedo, a Brazilian, is heading for a job at PepsiCo Inc and eight candidates are vying to replace him. In 1999, a four-month gap leadership vacuum was widely seen as damaging, and guidelines to prevent a repeat envisaged the 164 members selecting a temporary replacement from among four current deputies.

But Washington’s insistence on its candidate prevented agreement, leaving a vacuum that will last for months.

In theory, a winner should be selected by November 7, under an agreed elimination process that seeks to have a new director-general appointed by consensus.

Trade sources say the uncertainty around the US presidential poll on November 3, which has not said publicly which candidate it prefers, could delay matters further. The 2021 budget, due to be set at the end of the year, which US might question, could also be a hurdle

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