GENEVA / BRUSSELS:
The head of the World Trade Organization, Roberto Azevedo, will step down a year earlier than planned in August, he said on Thursday in a surprising move as the trade organization struggles to curb global tensions and coordinate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 62-year-old Brazilian has been General Manager since 2013 and is serving a second term, which should be completed at the end of August 2021.
Azevedo said that after speaking to his family, he made a "personal decision" and that his move was not due to health reasons or specific political ambitions.
According to the text of a speech to WTO members, Azevedo said that this was also in the best interest of the organization.
"When members begin to shape the WTO agenda for COVID's new realities, they should do so with a new director-general," he said at a virtual meeting of national members on Thursday afternoon.
His departure is on a trial period for the 25-year-old panel, whose role in dispute resolution has been undermined after the appellate panel was paralyzed in December by Washington's decision to block the appointment of judges.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, Azevedo has urged governments not to impose export restrictions on food and medical care.
The 164-member WTO club, which is supposed to set global trade rules, has not achieved a major international agreement since the "Doha round of negotiations" ended in 2015.
Its members are negotiating an agreement to cut subsidies to fisheries to help recover depleted fish stocks, while a smaller group is discussing a possible agreement on electronic commerce. However, there are still significant differences that are far from the consensus required to agree the two agreements.
Some members, particularly the United States, Japan and the European Union, are pushing for more fundamental reforms. They say that global trade rules must reflect new realities – especially a much stronger China – and address issues such as government subsidies and forced technology transfers.
Such issues may have been raised at the biennial WTO meeting in Kazakhstan in June. That has now been pushed back to mid or late 2021. Azevedo said his departure would allow a successor to be in place by then.
Azevedo said the WTO could not stand still while the world around it was changing, or ignore the "new normal" that the COVID-19 pandemic had created.
US trade representative Robert Lighthizer said Azevedo is difficult to replace and Washington is looking forward to taking part in the selection of a successor.
EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said it was a good time to find a new boss, but it had to be done this year and not next year as the WTO faces major challenges and louder voices call for reform.
Simon Evenett, professor of international trade and economic development at the Swiss University of St. Gallen, said that the next director general would have to put the WTO back together.
"The next WTO leader must show respect in the key players' power corridors. This is not the time to promote another ambassador. Someone with very high levels of government experience or global status is needed," said Evenett.
Azevedo was a professional diplomat, while his predecessors mostly had political backgrounds.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)