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WTO Appellate Body secretariat director forced out?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 19 Mar 2001 - The World Trade Organization has issued a vacancy notice inviting applications to fill the post of Director of the Appellate Body Secretariat.

The vacancy notice is for the post held hitherto by Mme. Debra Steger, a national of Canada, who apparently resigned on 9 March.

According to the WTO’s chief spokesperson, Mr. Keith Rockwell, Steger resigned ‘for personal reasons.’

While no further official information or explanation was immediately available for her resignation on 9 March and the vacancy notice on 13 March, there seems to be more than meets the eye.

Even trade diplomats say that while the WTO and its affairs are non-transparent to the public, and in many cases, even to its members, the affairs of the secretariat - how people are selected for jobs, on what criteria and how the secretariat functions - are even more obscure, more so when the normal checks and balances of an international institution in such matters, including budget processes, don’t function as well at the WTO.

Trade diplomats, closely following the trade disputes and some of the controversial rulings of the AB, have generally tended to attribute them to the secretariat and its ‘guiding hand’.

Steger is known to have run a ‘tight ship’ in the Appellate Body secretariat, which, over the last few years, trade diplomats said, has been giving more than a guiding hand to the reports of the Appellate Body.

According to the trade diplomats, who did not want to be identified, there has been a large turnover of professional staff in the six-year old Appellate Body secretariat, with some of the legal professionals transferring themselves to other divisions of the WTO, and others quitting the WTO service - all on account of what is described as ‘friction’ between them and the head of that secretariat.

The trade diplomats said that there had been considerable internal friction, with the professional staff complaining of too much interference in their professional work by Mme. Steger, and that the complaints of the staff  had led to some internal inquiries in the WTO secretariat, leading to the resignation.

The vacancy notice sets out as one of the functions, “acting as chief legal advisor to the Appellate Body.”

This is somewhat intriguing, given that Art.17.3 of the DSU says that the AB “shall comprise persons of recognized authority, with demonstrated experience in law, international trade and the subject matters of the covered agreements generally.”

And Art. 17.7 merely talks of the AB being provided with ‘appropriate administrative and legal support.”

This perhaps corresponds to the other functions for the Director of the AB secretariat, listed in the job vacancy announcement as: managing and supervising the work of the professional officers within the AB secretariat; in the preparation of materials and analyses on WTO law and practice for use by Members of the AB; undertaking any other legal or administrative tasks that are required by the AB to carry on its work.

Trade diplomats also reported Monday that Canada has staked a claim to the post of the director of the AB secretariat, to succeed Steger.

The claim is on the basis that at the time the AB was constituted, and a US nominee was appointed, and a Canadian nominee was denied the job of AB membership, Canada’s consensus was obtained by the then chair of the DSU and the Director-General of the WTO on the basis that in lieu of AB membership, a Canadian would be appointed to head the AB secretariat!-SUNS4858

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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