The new head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Monday called for a “transfer of technology” with regard to COVID-19 vaccines and urged member countries to strike a deal to reduce overfishing after years of fruitless discussions as she spelled out her top priorities after taking office.
Nigerian economist and former government minister, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, donned a mask and nudged welcoming as she took up her post at WTO headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Yet she immediately set about trying to change the culture of the organization.
“It can’t be business as usual. We need to change our approach to debate and rounds of questions to get results, ”she told the ambassadors and other senior government envoys who make up the General Council of the 164-member body.
“The world is abandoning the WTO. Leaders and policymakers are eager to change, ”she said, noting that several trade ministers had told her that“ if things don’t change ”they will not attend the biggest WTO event. – a ministerial meeting – “because it is wasteful. of their time ”.
Okonjo-Iweala, 66, is both the first woman and the first African to hold the post of Director General of the WTO. His sharp comments strayed from the more cautious approach of his predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down on August 31 – a year before his term ended.
She did not take sides in an effort led by South Africa and India to wrest a temporary waiver from WTO rules on intellectual property protection, which could help expand vaccine production. COVID-19 and accelerate their deployment around the world. But she immediately launched a cry to the developing world.
As the ‘escalation’ of dialogue continues on the vaccine waiver proposal, Okonjo-Iweala said, “I suggest that we ‘walk and chew gum’ while also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of countries. poor who have not yet vaccinated a single person. People are dying in poor countries. “
She hinted at “difficult” goals of producing 10 billion doses, “so we need to focus on working with businesses to open and license more viable manufacturing sites now in emerging markets and developing countries. We need to get them to work with us on the transfer of know-how and technology now. “
On fisheries, WTO negotiators have been tasked with reaching a deal that could help eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and ban fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and the overcapacity of fishing vessels.
WTO member states, which are working to craft deals that can ensure smooth international trade, have struggled to reach a fisheries deal, even after two decades of work. Okonjo-Iweala called for the negotiations to be finalized “as soon as possible”, and thanked Colombian Ambassador Santiago Wills, who is chairing the talks, for his “really hard” work.
“My presence is to try and proactively support him to try to unblock the situation so that he can complete the fantastic job he has done,” she said alongside Wills as they met. advocacy groups outside the gates of the WTO. “It’s been 20 years – and 20 years is enough.”
Wills said it was music to my ears to see the first day [director-general] come here and make a statement on the fisheries negotiations.
Okonjo-Iweala’s first day also consisted of meeting with staff members and attending his first General Council meeting. The closed-door council meeting was largely conducted via videoconference due to measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala’s victory in the race last fall was delayed in large part because the US administration under former President Donald Trump backed another candidate. His appointment came last month when President Joe Biden’s administration paved the way for his selection to the trade body, whose rules require consensus.
The WTO faces headwinds such as rising protectionism. Its dispute settlement system has been blocked because the United States has almost single-handedly prevented appointments to its Appellate Body – the rough equivalent of an appeals court.
Okonjo-Iweala said last month that “sweeping reforms” were needed, vowing that a first priority would be to tackle the economic and health consequences of the pandemic – for example by working to lift restrictions on export on supplies and vaccines for distribution. to countries in need.