TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Feb21/12)
17 February 2021
Third World Network

New WTO Director-General leans towards Northern trade agenda
Published in SUNS #9287 dated 17 February 2021

Geneva, 16 Feb (D. Ravi Kanth) – Several developing countries have remained alarmed over the trade agenda unveiled by the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, that seeks to accelerate work on the non-mandated, informal Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs) on electronic commerce and investment facilitation, trade envoys told the SUNS.

In her acceptance speech delivered at a special General Council meeting on 15 February immediately after being appointed as the new DG, Ms Okonjo-Iweala has signaled that developing countries that currently avail of special and differential treatment (S&DT) should consider withdrawing voluntarily from their S&DT entitlements, as done by some developing countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Brazil, said a trade envoy who asked not to be quoted.

She suggested that the trade ministerial conference taking place biennially as set out in the Marrakesh Agreement, can be held annually, while arguing for reforms to strengthen the WTO Secretariat, including in the transparency and notification work.

She praised the WTO Secretariat for its high quality work, suggesting that they could play an important role in the regular monitoring work.

Ms Ngozi, as she prefers to be called, has also expressed concern over the application of the consensus principle in arriving at decisions at the WTO, said another trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.

The first woman and the first African director-general of the World Trade Organization, Ms Ngozi said she will not adopt a business-as-usual approach, indicating that her immediate work priorities include addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and what the WTO can contribute, galvanizing the fisheries subsidies negotiations, and restarting work on reforming the two-stage dispute settlement system, said trade envoys, who took part in the meeting.

On reforming the dispute settlement system, which has been paralyzed by only one member, i.e. the United States through its blockage of appointments to the Appellate Body, the new director-general turned the problem into one for all members, suggesting that members can agree on a work program at the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference (MC12), said trade envoys, who asked not to be quoted.

At the special General Council (GC) meeting, the GC chair, Ambassador David Walker from New Zealand, provided an account of the DG selection process and explained the process adopted by the three-member “Troika” – the GC chair, the chair of the Dispute Settlement Body, Ambassador Dacio Castillo from Honduras, and the chair of the Trade Policy Review Body, Ambassador Harald Aspelund from Iceland – that reached the decision to appoint Ms Ngozi.

Members unanimously confirmed Ms Ngozi as the new director-general, after the Trump administration had blocked her selection as the head of the trade body on 28 October last year, despite the maximum support that she had received from members.

In her acceptance speech, Ms Ngozi highlighted her other main priorities that include advancing the informal Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) work on electronic commerce to facilitate the inclusion of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and women in international trade, investment facilitation and the conclusion of the plurilateral agreement on domestic regulation in trade in services, among others.

As regards the WTO reforms, she suggested that the special and differential treatment for developing countries based on the self-designation basis, as set out in the Marrakesh Agreement, is a “divisive” issue.

She echoed the US stand that S&DT should be voluntarily withdrawn by developing countries like some developing countries (Singapore, South Korea, Brazil) have done, said a trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.


In her acceptance speech, Ms Ngozi thanked the Biden-Harris administration for clearing the path for her to be appointed as the new head of the 164-member trade body.

Her appointment was blocked by the previous Trump administration on 28 October on grounds that she lacked any experience on trade issues.

The previous US Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Robert Lighthizer had supported the losing Korean candidate, Ms Yoo Myung-hee, because of her experience in handling trade issues.

Without the recent “swift” action by the Biden-Harris administration, it would not have been possible to become the DG, Ms Ngozi emphasized.

It is a “dawn of a new day”, she said, suggesting that the “real work can now begin” without any further delay.

Ms Ngozi, who takes over office as the new DG on 1 March, will have four years to navigate the organization that is currently engulfed in a morass of systemic crises, said trade envoys, who were present at the virtual meeting.

“You are selecting a woman and an African,” Ms Ngozi said, suggesting that it is a “ground-breaking moment.”

Ms Ngozi said the DG leads from behind to achieve results, promising that she will remain proactive and will sustain members’ trust in her.

She said the WTO is about people, and addressing their concerns remains a main challenge.

Ms Ngozi spoke about the underlying crises that the WTO is facing at this juncture, including the sudden drop in global trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new director-general said that she would strive hard to strengthen the “monitoring” function of the WTO.

Ms Ngozi said removing the export restrictions is her top priority so as to enable the smooth functioning of the global supply-chains.

Ms Ngozi called for rejecting the unfolding phenomenon of “vaccine nationalism” globally, emphasizing that facilitating technology-transfer within the multilateral trade rules must be explored.

The new director-general mentioned repeatedly in her address and at a subsequent press conference about the licensing decision of the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company to share its know-how and technology with the Serum Institute of India.

Ms Ngozi overly praised the World Health Organization’s ACT-A (the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator) and the COVAX facility being implemented by the WHO and the Geneva-based GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance).

Ms Ngozi argued that the TRIPS flexibilities are sufficient and adequate to address the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in ramping up production globally to address the shortages of vaccines and therapeutics that are being faced by developing countries.


Ms Ngozi appeared to remain silent on the TRIPS waiver proposal being sponsored by South Africa, India, and several other countries.

The TRIPS waiver seeks to temporarily suspend several provisions in the TRIPS Agreement relating to copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and protection of undisclosed information in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and for ramping up production of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

However, Ms Ngozi lent her support to the Trade and Public Health initiative being promoted by the Ottawa Group of countries led by Canada and the European Union among others on grounds that it could address some main challenges in providing medicines and vaccines affordably and equitably across countries, said people present at the meeting.

At the press conference after her confirmation, Ms Ngozi was asked pointedly about her stand on the TRIPS waiver. She said that she is aware of the proposal, suggesting that she will hold meetings with trade envoys for “brokering” an agreement on this issue.


When asked about the unfinished and unresolved Doha Development Agenda (DDA) trade negotiations that were started twenty years ago, she said some issues are still relevant, pointing in particular to the issue of domestic support.

Ms Ngozi argued that the WTO rule-book is outdated, calling for updating the rule-book by completing the e-commerce and digital trade negotiations for bridging the digital divide.

However, the new director-general remained silent on the mandated 1998 electronic commerce work program in which India and South Africa among others have called for a re-think of the continuation of the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce and on the scope of the electronic transmissions, said trade envoys, who asked not to be quoted.

Ms Ngozi emphasized that the “controversial” plurilateral initiatives brought new energy, underscoring the need for accelerating the work on the JSIs, especially the conclusion of a plurilateral agreement on domestic regulation on trade in services at MC12.

She underscored the need to negotiate on trade and environment, including an agreement on green goods (an initiative which is currently promoted by the European Union along with other members of the Ottawa Group of countries).

More importantly, Ms Ngozi proposed negotiations on non-mandated issues such as disciplines on industrial subsidies and state-owned enterprises as promoted by the United States, the EU, and Japan among others.


While emphasizing the need to start work on trade-distorting domestic support, Ms Ngozi spoke about special and differential treatment, saying that it is a “divisive issue” that undermines trust among members.

She suggested voluntary submission by developing countries to give up their S&DT as done by some countries (Singapore, Korea, Brazil, and Kenya among others).

The new director-general called for work on procedural reforms, including the convening of the ministerial meetings.

She said instead of holding biennial ministerial meetings, it would be important to work on holding ministerial conferences annually.

On the reviving of the dispute settlement system, she said that members must address the issues raised about the functioning of the Appellate Body.

Effectively, there is no prospect for an early restoration of the Appellate Body, said a trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.

“She is suggesting a work program to be agreed at the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference, and that could include a payment to the US to revive the Appellate Body,” suggested a negotiator, who asked not to be quoted.

The US praised Ms Ngozi as the first woman and the first African candidate to be appointed as the WTO DG, expressing confidence in her leadership, and that it will not be business-as-usual.

Almost all countries who took the floor during the meeting, praised Mr Ngozi, saying they hope for resolution of outstanding issues under her leadership.

India welcomed the new DG and reminded her of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous comment made in South Africa: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.”

On behalf of the ACP (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific) group of countries, South Africa’s trade envoy, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, said “not only are we pleased that Dr Okonjo-Iweala will be the first woman to lead the WTO but the ACP Group is also honoured for the first time, there is a WTO Director-General from the Group.”

Mauritius, on behalf of the African Group of countries, said members are ready to work closely with the new DG for accomplishing important priorities that she has outlined, said a trade envoy, who asked not to be quoted.