Canada hails new WTO chief

Trade body names first African, and first female, DG

Incoming WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes part in an online meeting before speaking during an interview with Reuters in Potomac, Maryland on Feb. 15, 2021. (Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Canada is lending its support to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) choice for its new director general.

Ngorzi Okonjo-Iweala was chosen Feb. 15 by WTO members as the international trade body’s new head, making her the first woman and the first African to serve in the role.

Mary Ng, Canada’s minister of small business, export promotion and international trade, congratulated Okonjo-Iweala in a statement.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s commitment to bringing about positive change is evident in her work with international organizations and her public service in Nigeria, where she served in many leading roles, including as minister of finance, minister of foreign affairs and coordinating minister for the economy,” Ng said.

“We are pleased that — for the first time — the WTO will be led by a woman and an African, and are confident that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will work constructively with all WTO members to ensure the organization is able to address the challenges of the 21st century.”

In a virtual press conference following her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala admitted she takes the reins at the WTO “at a time of great uncertainty and challenge.

“We have the twin side of the (COVID-19) pandemic, the health side and the economic side, which is challenging so many, including challenging livelihoods around the world, and it has hurt economic diversification in many parts of the world,” she said.

Her selection to lead the beleaguered organization comes at a time when many countries are deciding to turn inward rather than focus on multilateral trading relationships.

The dispute resolution process among member nations has been handicapped by the United States’ refusal to nominate a new member to the WTO’s appellate body.

“The WTO at this point in time is also facing so many challenges, and it’s clear to me that deep and wide-ranging reforms are needed, and as I said before it cannot be business as usual at the WTO,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

She added she would prioritize modernizing the rules of the WTO — an effort Canada in particular supports.

Ng is currently chairing the 17-nation Ottawa Group, tasked with leading efforts to modernize the WTO.

“We look forward to working with DG Okonjo-Iweala on this important work as well as other WTO initiatives that will pave the way for an inclusive, sustainable and resilient global economic recovery for Canadians and people around the world,” Ng said.

Okonjo-Iweala also spoke unprompted about the importance of agriculture to trade and the WTO’s work.

“Traditional issues like agriculture should not be forgotten, issues of industrial subsidy, agriculture subsidy, special and differential treatment, these are all very difficult areas down the line we will definitely need to look into,” she said.

Canadian producers will be eager to find out if the new WTO head will address ongoing concerns they have with international trade.

Beyond protectionist measures being taken in countries like India and Italy, trade agreements such as the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) have fallen short of expectations, in part as the EU employs technical or non-tariff trade barriers to restrict the flow of Canadian agriculture goods to member countries.

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

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