WTO race for Director-General: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala addresses questions on trade, IP, and future COVID-19 vaccines

On 14 May 2020, Roberto Azevêdo, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced he would step down from his post as Director-General of the organization on 31 August 2020; to say this news was a surprise is an understatement considering Azevêdo’s second term was scheduled to end on 31 August 2021.

The deadline for WTO members to submit nominations was 8 July 2020. There are eight candidates in the race (listed in order of nomination): 1) Dr Jesús Seade Kuri, Mexico, 2) Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria, 3) Mr Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, Egypt, 4) Mr Tudor Ulianovschi, Moldova, 5) Ms Yoo Myung-hee, Republic of Korea, 6) Ms Amina C. Mohamed, Kenya, 7) Mr Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and 8) Dr Liam Fox, United Kingdom.

After the first phase of nominations, the second phase of campaigning, described by the the WTO secretariat as the phase in which candidates “make themselves known to members” will expire on 7 September 2020 (Source: General Council Chair Walker announces timelines for next stages of DG selection process, 10 July 2020). As described by the Secretariat, the third phase, led by the Chair of the General Council, (David Walker of New Zealand) will commence on 7 September 2020 and will last no more than two months; consequently, a strong possibility exists that a new Director-General will not be be appointed till November 2020. In the words of the Secretariat,

Under this phase, Amb. Walker, together with the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body (Dacio Castillo of Honduras) and Trade Policy Review Body (Harald Aspelund of Iceland), will consult with all WTO members to assess their preferences and seek to determine which candidate is best placed to attract consensus support. This phase may involve more than one stage of consultations as members seek to narrow the field of candidates. Amb. Walker informed members that, as spelled out in the guidelines, the third Phase would last no more than two months (Ibid).

Between 15 July 2020 to 17 July 2020, the eight DG candidates will make presentations to the General Council and then address members of the press. On Wednesday, 15 July 2020, Dr Jesús Seade Kuri (Mexico), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria), and Mr Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt) made presentations to the WTO General Council and addressed the international press corps. Dr. Seade’s presentation to the General Council can be found here; his press conference remarks can be found here. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s presentation to the General Council can be found here; her press conference remarks can be found here. Mr Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh’s press conference remarks can be found here.

During Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s press conference on 15 July 2020, a reporter from Xinhua News Agency asked a specific question on COVID-19.

The reporter asked: “Madame, You are chair of the board of Gavi, and special envoy of the African Union in the fight against COVID-19. So, if elected, what’s your plan as Director-General to ensure smooth global trade especially for essential goods such as vaccines?”

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala provided the following response.

“Thank you very much. That’s a very important question. I am indeed privileged to be Chair of Gavi, the Vaccines Alliance and also to be working as envoy to the [ACT] tools accelerator where there is an attempt by the international community to ensure that finding the tools for solving COVID-19 are there and it’s the international community with WHO, with Gavi, with CEPI and with other organizations that have come together. So part of this tools accelerator, the raison d’être, is to ensure that when vaccines do become available, that poorer countries will not be left standing in the queue but that there will be allocation criteria that will mean that poor countries, rich countries get access to the vaccines at the same time.

If I became WTO DG, I would have a very strong collaboration with the tools accelerator which has WHO, CEPI, Gavi, to work towards this, to make sure that there are no barriers, no restrictions on the availability of these vaccines whilst respecting the intellectual property rights of those who have manufactured the vaccines. The world should be able to come to the point where the medicines, where mechanisms are put in place to make those vaccines available and the world trading system should be a facilitator of that and not an impediment. So I would combine the role of WTO DG with the experience I’ve had at Gavi to ensure this because I think it’s critical that everyone has access to live-saving vaccines.”