WTO members choose Brazil’s Azevêdo as next Director-General

15 May 2013

Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo has won the position of WTO Director-General, officials announced on May 8, beating Mexico’s Herminio Blanco for the high-profile role.

“Azevêdo carried the largest support by members in the final round and has consistently done so in each round; and, he enjoyed support from members from all levels of development and from all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process,” said the General Council Chair,  Shashid Bashir, in his report. The global trade body met to formally sign off on the result at a special meeting of the General Council on 14 May.

The choice of Azevêdo - who has spent the past five years as his country’s ambassador to the global trade body - was welcomed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who called the news a win for the WTO.

While the process was conducted confidentially, reports had surfaced in the past few days that the US was planning to back Blanco, while the EU resolved an internal split that ultimately led to their backing the Mexican candidate as well. Both the US and EU, however, made clear that they would accept either nominee. Meanwhile, Azevêdo had reportedly proved to be more popular among the emerging and developing economies.

During the campaign, the Mexican candidate Blanco and the Brazilian Azevêdo had both sought to dispel the notion that they were either the “rich country” or “developing country” candidate, noting in recent statements that they each enjoyed broad support from a range of countries at all levels of development.

Insider perspective vs. outsider background

Who would win the high-profile post has been a hot topic in both Geneva circles and in the international media, with pressure building in the past week as each candidate pushed to make known why he would be better suited for the job.

Before becoming Brazil’s Ambassador to the WTO in Geneva, Azevêdo was posted in Brasilia as his country’s Vice Minister for Economic and Technological Affairs, acting as Brazil’s chief Doha Round negotiator and supervising trade talks conducted under the South American customs union Mercosur. Prior to that, he was Brazil’s chief litigator in various WTO disputes, and both served on and chaired dispute settlement panels.

Blanco had previously served as his country’s trade minister from 1994 to 2000, and was Mexico’s chief negotiator for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since concluding his time with the Mexican government, Blanco has spent the last 12 years in the private sector, advising governments, corporations, and international organisations.

While Blanco’s public comments in recent weeks focused on his outside perspective and insights from his private sector work, Azevêdo stressed the importance of being familiar with the Geneva scene and the intricacies of the recent negotiations.

Trade observers such as Simon Evenett, an economics professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland note that Azevêdo’s status as a Geneva insider could, while having some benefits, also have its disadvantages. “He clearly knows everyone, and he’s clearly well-liked, so that must help,” he commented to Bridges. “But being in Geneva so long can also narrow one’s frame of options and creativity, so that’s the downside as well.”

Six-month process

The process to pick a new head for the Geneva-based trade body had kicked off in December, when nine of the organisation’s members submitted candidates for the post - making it the biggest field in the WTO’s history. It was also the first race to feature three women vying for the job.

Along with Azevêdo and Blanco, the original nine had also included Anabel González of Costa Rica, Alan Kyerematen of Ghana, Amina Mohamed of Kenya, Mari Pangestu of Indonesia, Ahmad Thougan Hindawi of Jordan, Tim Groser of New Zealand, and Taeho Bark of South Korea. All nine, with the exception of Groser, hailed from members that are self-designated as developing countries at the WTO, though Korea and Mexico - like New Zealand- are considered developed in other forums such as the OECD.

All candidates made formal presentations to the membership at the end of January regarding their visions for the future of the organisation. Since April, Shashid Bashir together with Dispute Settlement Body Chair Jonathan Fried of Canada and Trade Policy Review Body Chair Joakim Reiter of Sweden conducted consultations with members with the aim of whittling down the field to one person around which the membership could build consensus.

The first round of consultations had led to the elimination of the Costa Rican, Ghanaian, Jordanian, and Kenyan candidates, after they were unable to gain sufficient support from the membership to move to the contest’s next stage. The second round then saw Indonesia, New Zealand, and South Korea exit the race. Under the selection guidelines for WTO DG, members had until 31 May of this year to pick Lamy’s successor.

Bali countdown

Azevêdo will take office on 1 September, after the term of current Director-General Pascal Lamy ends on 31 August. The WTO will then be holding its Ninth Ministerial Conference in the Indonesian province of Bali in early December, giving the incoming trade chief just a few short months to get settled into his new role.

WTO members are currently working to prepare a small package of deliverables from the Doha Round negotiations in time for December’s conference, in what would mark the first major advance in years for the notoriously difficult talks. The planned package would, if successful, include an agreement on trade facilitation, as well as components involving agriculture and issues of interest to developing and least developed country members.
“Being appointed Director-General of the WTO in the summer of 2013 is a little bit of a ‘mission impossible’,” Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a professor of political economy at the IMD business school in Lausanne and founder of the Evian Group economic governance think tank, commented to Bridges.
Azevêdo, he noted, will face the challenges of increasing US engagement at the negotiating table, while healing the North-South rift among the WTO’s members and helping restore the organisation’s relevance. “The Doha Round was launched in 2001 - and between 2001 and 2013 the world has changed beyond recognition, practically,” Lehmann said.

The full article can be read at https://ictsd.iisd.org/bridges-news/bridges/review/wto-members-choose-brazil’s-azevêdo-as-next-director-general

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