World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevêdo announced he will step down from his position effective August 31, 2020. In his announcement, Azevêdo stated his hope that his early departure would relieve some of the burden on the organization as it prepares for the upcoming Twelfth Ministerial Conference in addition to selecting the next Director-General (“DG”). Azevêdo’s second term as DG was set to expire in August 2021. The Conference was previously scheduled for June of this year, but was delayed due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. With the Conference now scheduled for either mid- or late-2021, Azevêdo timed his resignation so as to minimize the “distraction” to the conference from the “politically charged process” of choosing his successor.
WTO DGs are appointed for four-year terms, with the possibility of reappointment for a second term. Since its formation in 1995, there have been six WTO chiefs, hailing from Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Thailand, France, and Brazil. DG candidates must be nominated on behalf of “their own nationals” represented by a WTO member country. Nominees are then vetted by the General Council, which aims to reach a decision on a final candidate by consensus. With the expectation that candidates deemed as least likely to attract consensus withdraw during the deliberation process, the candidate which the Council, in consultation with chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body, and the membership ultimately recommends then becomes the next leader, with voting on a candidate only reserved as a last resort.
On May 20, 2020, the WTO announced its selection process for Azevêdo’s successor. According to the selection timetable and pursuant to the organization’s DG appointment procedures (see WT/L/509), nominations will be accepted during a one-month window beginning June 8, 2020. Several potential candidates to succeed Azevȇdo have already been floated. Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt, current WTO Deputy Director-General Yonov Fredrick Agah from Nigeria, Eloi Laourou from Benin, Amina Mohamed from Kenya, Peter Mandelson from the United Kingdom, and Arancha González from Spain are among the current potential nominees being discussed. If the selection process fails to decide on a new leader by September 1, 2020, an interim leader will be chosen from the current four Deputy Directors-General, which hail from Nigeria, Germany, the United States, and China. While the United States and China do not typically offer their own nominees for DG, the backing of the two countries will likely loom large as the selection process unfolds given the relative current paralysis at the WTO.