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article imageNigeria's Okonjo-Iweala, S. Korea's Yoo in run-off to lead WTO

By Robin MILLARD (AFP)     Oct 8, 2020 in World

The World Trade Organization is set to have its first female leader after Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea's Yoo Myung-hee made it through Thursday to the final run-off.

Whoever wins the contest -- with a decision due before November 7 -- will take over an organisation mired in multiple crises and struggling to help member states navigate a severe global economic slump triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Roberto Azevedo stepped down as WTO director-general in August a year ahead of schedule. The initial pool of eight candidates to replace him was narrowed down to five in last month's first round.

Britain's Liam Fox, Kenya's Amina Mohamed and Saudi Arabia's Mohammad al-Tuwaijri were knocked out in the second round Thursday.

"Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Korean minister Yoo Myung-hee will advance to the third and final stage," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters at the global trade body's headquarters in Geneva.

The pair received a boost earlier this week when EU member states officially threw their weight behind them.

Rather than voting, the 164 WTO member states make decisions by consensus only, and have been narrowing down the field of candidates through lengthy consultations.

Okonjo-Iweala immediately received the support of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also is the current chairman of the African Union.

"At a time when international organisations need to be repurposed, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the right person to reposition the WTO in order to be an effective instrument for facilitating a fair, just, equitable and rules-based trading system." Ramaphosa said in a statement praising her "distinguished" record.

"I have no doubt that she has the credentials and capability to restore order in an otherwise turbulent multilateral trading system," added Ramaphosa, who encouraged all AU members to rally around the Nigerian.

- Full plate -

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, served as her country's first female finance and foreign minister, and has a 25-year career behind her as a development economist at the World Bank, eventually becoming its number two.

She is also on Twitter's board of directors and is a special envoy for the World Health Organization's Covid-19 fight.

If Okonjo-Iweala wins, she would become the first African to lead the global trade body in its 25-year history.

"Thanks, WTO members for your continued support of my candidacy," she said on Twitter.

"I could not have made it without the prayers and support of all Nigerians and friends around the world," she added.

Yoo tweeted that she was "deeply grateful and honoured" to have made it through.

"We need a capable and experienced new leader who can rebuild trust and restore relevance of the WTO. I look forward to your continued support," she said.

Yoo, 53, is South Korea's first female trade minister. She has enjoyed a career in trade diplomacy and foreign affairs in which she struck free trade agreements with China and the United States.

"Both of the women in the final round are remarkably well-qualified," Rockwell said.

"This is something on which everyone is agreed. We've been impressed with them from the very beginning. They are people with long experience dealing with tricky issues.

"It's clear that whichever woman assumes this job will have a very full plate from day one."

- US-China tensions -

Before the Covid-19 crisis hit, the WTO was already grappling with stalled trade talks and struggling to curb tensions between the United States and China.

The global trade body has also faced relentless attacks from Washington, which has crippled the WTO dispute settlement appeal system and threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

"We do need a director-general, and the sooner she can take office, the better," Rockwell said.

He insisted that the timetable for picking the next leader was unrelated to the US presidential election on November 3, and fears that the campaign for the White House might cripple the WTO leadership process have not materialised.

After being knocked out of the contest, Tuwaijri said he was "extremely confident" that either of the remaining candidates would "steer the WTO in the right direction, to the benefit of all".

The WTO forecast on Tuesday that global trade, devastated by the coronavirus crisis, will shrink by less than previously expected this year at minus 9.2 percent, but the rebound in 2021 will also be much weaker than previously forecast at 7.2 percent.

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