FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was named head of the World Trade Organization on Monday, becoming the first woman and first African to take on the role amid growing protectionism and disagreements over how the body decides cases. involving billions in sales and thousands of jobs.
Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was appointed director general by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the WTO, which deals with the rules of trade between nations based on negotiated agreements.
She said during an online press conference that she was taking office at a time when the WTO is facing so many challenges and it is clear to me that deep and far-reaching reforms are needed … it cannot be business as usual. ”
Its first priority would be to quickly address the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as lifting export restrictions on supplies and vaccines and encouraging the production of vaccines in more countries. Other major tasks include reforming the organizations dispute resolution process and finding ways for trade rules to deal with changes such as digitalisation and e-commerce.
She takes office after four tumultuous years in which US President Donald Trump used new tariffs, or import taxes, against China and the European Union to push his first trade agenda in America.
It will not be easy because we also have the issue of member distrust that has developed over time, not only between the US and China and the US … but also between members of countries developing and developed countries, and we need to work through that, she said.
She said that as the first woman and the first African to hold this post, I absolutely feel an extra burden, I can not lie about it. Being the first woman and the first African means that someone really has to interpret.
All credit to the members who elected me and made that story, but the bottom line is that if I want to make Africa and women proud, I have to come up with results and now it’s my mind. “
The appointment, which takes effect on March 1, came after US President Joe Biden approved her candidacy, which had been blocked by Trump. Biden’s move was a step towards his goal of supporting cooperative approaches to international issues after Trump’s only approach that sparked numerous trade disputes.
But unlocking the appointment is just the beginning in addressing U.S. concerns about the WTO dating back to the Obama administration. The United States had blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO appeals body, essentially freezing their ability to resolve extended and complex trade disputes.
The US government has argued that the trade organization is slow and bureaucratic, unequipped to address the problems posed by the Chinese-dominated economy, and unjustly limits US efforts to impose sanctions on countries that unfairly subsidize their companies or export unusually low prices.
Okonjo-Iweala has been Nigeria’s finance minister and, briefly, foreign minister, and has had a 25-year career at the World Bank as an advocate for economic growth and development in poor countries. She rose to No. 2 as Managing Director, overseeing $ 81 billion in development financing in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. In 2012 she made an unsuccessful bid for the top post with the support of Africa and other developing countries, challenging the traditional practice that the World Bank is always run by an American.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee had withdrawn her candidacy, leaving Okonjo-Iweala as the only choice. Her predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, resigned on August 31, a year before his term expired.
Trump repeatedly accused the WTO of unfair treatment of the US, started a trade war with China against the WTO system, and threatened to withdraw the US from the trading body altogether. Trump also imposed 25% tariffs on steel and aluminum that hit European allies for reasons of national security, an excuse that went beyond the trade measures normally used within the framework of WTO rules.
So far, Biden has not said whether the U.S. will unlock the appellate appointments, and he has not even withdrawn the steel tariffs, which are backed by industry and union groups.
Chad P. Bown, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said unlocking the Okonjo-Iweala appointment was a very good first step in re-engaging with the WTO, but it is easy. The rest are tough.
In particular, the WTO faces a time bomb in the form of other countries’ challenges to Trump’s use of national security as an excuse to set tariffs, a provision little used in U.S. law rejected by key partners. U.S. traders in Europe.
Bown said any decision would be a win-lose dilemma for the WTO. The ruling against Trump’s move could provide a rallying cry for WTO skeptics in the US, while a ruling in favor could lead other countries to use the national security justification as well. And that opens up a giant gap in the trading system through which all rules are meaningless, Bown said. The Biden administration has an incentive to remove the dispute from the table ahead of a decision, expected this summer.
If you are the Biden administration, what you want to do is choose this, so do not put the WTO in this difficult position, Bown said.
AP Business Writer Paul Wiseman contributed from Washington.
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