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Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala becomes first woman to head world trade body

Published: Updated:

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was selected by consensus to be the next director-general of the World Trade Organization at a closed-door meeting on Monday, according to two sources attending the meeting.

All 164 member countries of the WTO’s top decision-making body, the General Council, agreed on her appointment in a virtual meeting which had just one agenda item, they said.

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The WTO subsequently confirmed the choice.

She is the first African official and the first woman to hold the job.

Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s finance minister, had a 25-year career at the World Bank, where she rose to the No. 2 position of managing director.

South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee had withdrawn her candidacy, leaving Okonjo-Iweala as the only choice. Her predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, stepped down Aug. 31, a year before his term expired.

The World Trade Organization is an international body that deals with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated among the bulk of the world’s nations and ratified in their legislatures.

Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment came after new US President Joe Biden endorsed her candidacy, which had been blocked by former President Donald Trump.

Biden’s move was a step toward his aim of supporting more cooperative approaches to international problems after Trump’s “America first” approach that launched multiple trade disputes.

But unblocking the appointment is only the start in dealing with trade disputes launched by Trump, and in resolving US concerns about the WTO that date to the Obama administration. The US had blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appellate body, essentially freezing its ability to resolve extended and complex trade disputes.

The US government has argued that the trade organization is slow-moving and bureaucratic, ill-equipped to handle the problems posed by China’s state-dominated economy and unduly restrictive on US attempts to impose sanctions on countries that unfairly subsidize their companies or export at unusually low prices.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration reversed Trump’s opposition and expressed “strong support’’ for Okonjo-Iweala and saying she “brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy.” She is the first African official and the first woman to hold the job.

Trump repeatedly accused the WTO of unfair treatment of the US, started a trade war with China in defiance of the WTO system, and threatened to pull the United States out of the trade body altogether. Trump also imposed 25 percent steel tariffs that hit European allies on national security grounds, a justification that went beyond trade measures normally used within the WTO rules framework to address complaints about unfair trade.

So far, Biden has not said whether the US will unblock the appellate appointments, and he has not withdrawn the steel tariffs either, which are backed by U.S. steel industry and union groups.

Washington vows to be 'constructive partner'

The US delegate to the WTO on Monday welcomed the appointment of Okonjo-Iweala as director-general and said the United States was
counting on her to jumpstart efforts to reform and revitalize the global trade body.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has promised that under her leadership it will not be business as usual for the WTO, and we are excited and confident that she has the skills necessary to make good on this promise," said Charge d’Affaires David Bisbee in remarks sent to Reuters by the US diplomatic mission in Geneva.

Bisbee said Washington would work closely with Okonjo-Iweala: “The United States is committed to working closely with Director General Okonjo-Iweala and she can count on the United States to be a constructive partner.”

He said Okonjo-Iweala’s knowledge and experience in economics, trade, and diplomacy would help move forward efforts to reform the WTO, promote equitable economic growth through trade, and meet current and future global challenges.

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