World Trade Organization

Exiting chief warns against ‘big bang’ reform of beleaguered WTO

Agence France-Presse, Agence France-Presse
Exiting chief warns against ‘big bang’ reform of beleaguered WTO

Outgoing World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general Roberto Azevedo gestures as he gives his last press conference after a two-day general council to decide on an interim chief on July 23, 2020 in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Outgoing World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo advises his successor to 'be ready for anything'

The World Trade Organization (WTO)’s exiting chief acknowledged on Thursday, July 23, that the body was facing “tremendous pressure,” but insisted that a “big bang” reform was not the way ahead.

In his last press conference as WTO director-general before stepping down at the end of August, Roberto Azevedo insisted that he and his team had “achieved everything we could” have over the past 7 years.

“There was no effort spared,” he said, responding to a question on how he would grade his performance from one to 10 with: “I would rate 12.”

But the Brazilian career diplomat, who made the surprise announcement in May that he would end his second term 12 months early, acknowledged that he was leaving the WTO in the midst of a range of dire crises.

One of 8 candidates currently in the running to succeed Azevedo will be taking the reins in the midst of a devastating global economic downturn sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, with trade negotiations appearing hopelessly stalled and trade tensions between the United States and China continuing to soar.

At the same time, the appellate branch of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, stopped functioning in December after years of relentless US opposition.

Washington accuses the court of major overreach and has blocked appointments of new judges, leaving it without the quorum needed to hear cases. 

A number of the WTO’s 164 member states are urging a range of reforms, but Azevedo stressed that equally important as determining which reforms are needed is deciding how to proceed.

“I don’t believe that a big bang reform is the way forward,” he stressed.

‘Be ready for anything’

“We need to do things progressively, taking…constant steps in the right direction, instead of spending years deciding what the reform can be.”

He called for more flexibility in negotiations, and also stressed the need for the WTO, renowned as a slow and lumbering organization, to move far more quickly to respond to rapidly evolving events on the ground.

“One advice that I would give to my successor…is: be ready for anything. Because things can change in a split second,” Azevedo said.

“It can be a political event, it can be a natural event, a great disaster…. It can be a virus that comes from God knows where, and all of a sudden we are all facing now the steepest recession in peacetime in recent history.”

“We don’t have the luxury of time on our side, as often as we would like to have,” he said.

“Trade negotiations take a long time, but we need to be faster, we need to be able to respond,” he said, insisting that any international organization must react “quickly and efficiently if it wants to maintain relevance.” –