TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Feb17/11)
24 February 2017
Third World Network

Compressed process to confirm second term for Azevedo
Published in SUNS #8407 dated 22 February 2017

Geneva, 21 Feb (D. Ravi Kanth) - The "compressed" process adopted by the WTO General Council Chair, Ambassador Harald Neple of Norway, for selecting the incumbent director-general Roberto Azevedo for a second term of four years is causing sharp concern to several developing and least-developed countries, several trade envoys told SUNS. 

According to trade envoys who asked not to be quoted, at a time when there are serious issues to be discussed over Azevedo's role as the director-general during the last four years, the GC chair has chosen to compress the whole process into a few hours of questions and answers based on a "lucky draw".

"We can never trust Azevedo because he made us run in circles during the last four years while working hard for advancing the American trade objectives," said an African trade envoy, who preferred not to be quoted.

"Instead of allowing a vigorous process of question-and-answers by all members since he is the sole candidate and letting governments to decide during the next two months, the GC chair is concluding the process in a matter of 24 hours," according to a developing country trade envoy.

Last Friday (17 February), the GC chair informed members by fax and also an airgram about the process he is going to adopt for the selection of the DG.

Ambassador Neple said "the morning of 27 February will be devoted to make a brief presentation, including their vision for the WTO, to be followed by a question-and-answer period."

"For this purpose, the morning of 27 February will be devoted to a presentation by the sole candidate [Roberto Azevedo] - the incumbent director-general - for this post, to be followed by a question-and-answer period," according to the airgram issued on 17 February.

"The [GC] Chairman will shortly communicate to all members modalities for this segment [of Q&A on 27 February] of the meeting and the management of speakers' list for the question and answer session," the airgram stated.

Subsequently, the GC chair sent a fax to members in which he explained about the modalities and said members "wishing to put questions to place their names in a box that will be made available to members on 24 February."

"The [WTO] Secretariat will maintain a prospective list of candidates and only one member will be in the box," according to the fax.

"Each member whose name is drawn from the box will be allowed to ask one question with one additional follow-up question," the fax stated.

"This will be followed by the responses from the candidate [Azevedo].... There should be no statements from the delegations," it maintained.

"Mr Azevedo may choose to move on to other question if he feels that one has already been touched on in a previous response," the fax stated.

The GC "will then revert to item 1 [the selection of the DG] on 28 February, and take a formal decision on the appointment of the Director-General."

In short, the entire process of selecting the next director-general for the next four years will be completed in a matter of 24 hours.

Apparently, the same practice was adopted when Pascal Lamy was the sole candidate for a second term in 2009.

Nevertheless, the speed with which the process and procedures are being adopted on a war footing to approve Azevedo's second term seem somewhat inappropriate given the role he had played at the WTO's ninth ministerial meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2013, and at the tenth ministerial in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2015, trade envoys said.

Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo from Brazil will be the second DG to secure a second term after Pascal Lamy, the former European Union trade commissioner, who had served two terms during 2005-13.

He is the WTO's sixth director-general after Peter Sutherland (1 July 1993-1 May 1995), Renato Ruggiero (1 May 1995-1 September 1999), Mike Moore (1 September 1999-1 September 2002), Supachai Panitchpakdi (1 September 2002-1 September 2005), Pascal Lamy and now Azevedo.

Ironically, Azevedo, who failed to become the chair for Doha agriculture negotiations in 2009 despite his best efforts after the former New Zealand trade envoy Crawford Falconer's term was discontinued, managed to become the WTO's director-general by promising the developing and poorest countries that he would sincerely represent their interests in the global trading system, an African trade envoy said.

Azevedo was nominated by the impeached Workers' Party government of Dilma Rousseff in December 2012 and his ambitious globe-trotting campaign was funded by the Rousseff government.

In a hard-fought contest with seven other candidates, including serving trade ministers, he scored a significant victory.

"To be an effective DG you need two things: you have to be a strategist and you have to know the details," he told Washington Trade Daily, an American publication, during his campaign in January 2013.

"In Geneva, you have to know the forests and you have to know the trees and you have to know the branches of the trees and the leaves on the trees if you have to go anywhere," Azevedo said.

In his campaign, he had managed to secure support from the developing countries, particularly India, on the expectation that he would address the core developmental issues in the global trading system.

As a trade envoy of Brazil and the coordinator for the G-20 developing countries on agriculture, Azevedo has generated considerable trust and confidence among his colleagues.

Despite fierce opposition from the US to the December 2008 draft modalities on agriculture, which suggested credible reduction commitments in tariffs and trade-distorting farm subsidies, Azevedo had then maintained that the 2008 modalities are the "basis for negotiations and represent the end-game in terms of the landing zones of ambition."

According to Azevedo, "the December 2008 draft modalities are the basis for negotiations and represent the end- game in terms of landing zones of ambition. Any marginal adjustments in the level of ambition of those texts may be assessed only in the context of the overall balance of trade-offs, bearing in mind that agriculture is the engine of the Round.

"The draft modalities embody a delicate balance achieved after ten years of negotiations. This equilibrium cannot be ignored or upset, or we will need readjustments of the entire package with horizontal repercussions. Such adjustments cannot entail additional unilateral concessions from developing countries."

In a similar vein, Azevedo as Brazil's trade envoy had criticized efforts to conclude the Trade Facilitation Agreement without addressing the core issues in the DDA.

"For Brazil and many others, this (trade facilitation) is not a self-balancing issue," Azevedo had said at the informal heads of delegations meeting of the General Council on 7 June 2012.

"Stand-alone outcomes for trade facilitation are simply not realistic," he said. "If we want to advance in this, or in any other area actually, we must be sensitive to the need to also make progress in areas of interest to others."

He led Brazil in a major cotton dispute against the US at the WTO. The WTO's highest court - the Appellate Body - dealt a body blow in 2005 by ruling against Washington's trade-distorting subsidies.

Surprisingly, after securing a major victory, Azevedo had settled for a framework agreement that let Washington off the hook.

The US bought its way out of this dispute, without having to reform its subsidies, by paying a lump sum of $300 million while Brazil forfeited $829 million in WTO-mandated sanctions against US goods and services.

But the expectations he had raised as Brazilian envoy, evaporated after Azevedo took over as the director-general in September 2013.

The developing countries who had reposed their trust and confidence in Azevedo were left high and dry at the Bali meeting when he had facilitated the Trade Facilitation Agreement at the WTO's ninth ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2013.

Azevedo adopted an Orwellian strategy of "double speak" and Machiavellian tactics to silence opposition through close-door meetings with the US, the European Union, China, India and Brazil at the Nairobi ministerial meeting, according to several African trade envoys.

Azevedo deserves kudos for devising an ingenious negotiating norm: remain silent on issues where Washington has spoken its mind - whether it is blocking a sitting judge of the Appellate Body from getting a second term or electrocuting the DDA to pursue only those areas that advance the US' goals.

Azevedo, for example, has not issued any statement on the 'Buy American' and 'Hire American' measures announced by President Trump even though, in the case of the UK, he had said Brexit will be bad for British consumers before the electorate made their choice.

The Cuban deputy minister for trade and investment Ilean Barbara Nunez Mordoche had refused to negotiate with Azevedo at the Bali ministerial meeting because of his alleged proclivities towards the US.

Small wonder that the former US trade representative Ambassador Michael Froman had praised Azevedo along with the Kenyan cabinet secretary Amina Mohamed for their leadership in "shepherding" the Nairobi ministerial meeting towards a great success.

Froman, during his lecture on "pragmatic multilateralism" at Geneva's Graduate Institute on 17 October 2016, had praised "Amina Mohamed (Kenya's cabinet secretary) and Roberto Azevedo (WTO's director-general) for shepherding that process" at the WTO's 10th ministerial meeting in Nairobi - "which represented a critical turning point in the history of the WTO".

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will support Azevedo who was backed by the previous Obama administration, said a western trade analyst.

Against this backdrop, the WTO members must have an opportunity to get some clear answers as to how Azevedo will pursue a developmental trade agenda after he had facilitated the end of the Doha Development Agenda trade negotiations, according to trade envoys.

(The author has used some comments from his previous articles on Azevedo's legacy.)