Does citizenship matter in the contest for WTO head?
As the first round of the selection process to find a new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation kicks off in Geneva, the campaign of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala appears to be in trouble.
The high-profile Nigerian candidate has revealed that she obtained US citizenship in 2019, thereby becoming a dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States.
While she has not necessarily broken any rules, some of the 164 member States of the WTO are bound to be unsettled by not only the lack of honesty and transparency, but also the fear that she will favour her new country in future talks.
There are eight candidates striving to take the reins at the Geneva-based body, including widely tipped front-runner Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s Sports Cabinet Secretary and Jesús Seade Kuri, Mexico’s chief negotiator of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and a former WTO Deputy Director-Ggeneral.
Founded in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade among nations.
Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.
But the selection process to elect its new head looks anything but smooth or predictable.
According to Article VI of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organisation, the director general heads up the organisation’s secretariat. The role is an important one for the WTO.
Although the director general has in essence an administrative role, the incumbent is able to set agendas and have oversight of the organisation’s permanent staff.
The procedures for the appointment of a director general were adopted by the WTO General Council in December 2002 (Document WT/L/509 of January 20, 2003) and allow member states to nominate persons for the role.
The process is explicit that: “Nominations shall be submitted by Members only, and in respect of their own nationals” (Procedures, paragraph 8). Accordingly, nationality/citizenship is important at the point of nomination.
When appointed, the Director-General of the WTO, and his or her staff, are required to work “internationally.”
In the words of the Marrakesh Agreement, they shall “be exclusively international in character.”
Specifically, the agreement states: “In the discharge of their duties, the director general and the staff of the Secretariat shall not seek or accept instructions from any government or any other authority external to the WTO.”
Member states are charged not to try to influence these international officials in the exercise of their duties.
As a former managing director of the World Bank with 25 years’ experience in that organisation, Okonjo-Iweala has significant experience as an international official and there is no question of her having failed to fulfill her duties in that regard.
Nevertheless, there are a few issues with her current nomination that give rise to concern. - Agencies