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WTO director-general candidate Amina Mohamed: I have a record and it’s good

Amina Mohamed speaking to the WTO’s General Council in July 2020. Photo with thanks from the WTO website © WTO/Jay Louvion.

Borderlex’s Iana Dreyer spoke to one of the leading candidates in the current race to succeed Roberto Azevêdo at the helm of the World Trade Organization. Amina Mohamed is former Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya. She also served as ambassador to the WTO. Among others she acted as host to the organisation’s 2015 Nairobi ministerial meeting.

Q: Why are you running to become next WTO director-general?

I put my name forward because I believe very strongly that I bring the skills of a diplomat, the vision of a politician, and the tenacity of a technocrat. I have a record and it’s a good one. It’s a record of delivery. It’s a record of concluding successful WTO conferences, with deliverables that are good for all members.

Q: Where do you want the WTO to be in 2025?

Where it must be. This means as a central plank of global governance. I would like to see a WTO that is fit for purpose, fit for the 21st century. I want at WTO that addresses issues of concern to its members and to the global economy. The WTO needs to be ahead of the curve.

The WTO must be supportive of its members.

It must be a partner for poverty alleviation.

It must be a force for transformation of the world economy, a force for good that all countries want to be part of. The WTO has 164 members; not so long ago it had 140. I would like to see the WTO become a universal body with all members of the international community at the heart of the institution.

Q: What would you prioritise in your first 100 days in office?

We need to hit the ground running.

We have a few months to the next ministerial conference in Kazakhstan [in June 2020]. As at the 2015 ministerial conference in Nairobi, we need to have some deliverables. We need to have a ministerial that gives us a pathway to the future.

I would expect that members would be willing to conclude the fisheries subsidies agreement. If that happens, you tick two boxes immediately – the box for trade, the box for sustainability. It’s good for developing countries, it’s good for developed countries, for the least-developed countries because it would hopefully support small scale and artisanal fishing.

It is important to already begin working on institutional reforms, to get the members to agree on which reforms they want to see, where the priorities are.

We must reinstate the negotiating function of the WTO. It’s a negotiating, rule-making body. You can’t get away from that.

Then there is reforming the Appellate body. We need to have confidence in the way it functions so that we are willing to go to the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism to resolve our disputes.

Monitoring and transparency is another dimension – ensuring that members file their notifications in good time.

I’d like to be part of the global effort to deal with the COVID-19 fallout. I would like there be steps for the next ministerial conference, so that there is a programme for the future.

The WTO needs to provide for proper information exchange on COVID-19 related measures, an exchange of best practices. We must use online tools to build capacity and collaborate with others.

There are other international organisations dealing with the pandemic such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Financial Corporation, the World Food Programme….

We should all of us together see where we can strengthen the system, where we can make a contribution. For the WTO it’s about making sure that the markets are open, that borders are open to ensure trade in goods and services.

Q: Should developing countries no longer benefit from ‘special and differential treatment’?

Special and differential treatment is an integral part of the WTO agreements. As soon as we get that off the table, one can look at other proposals for future agreements.

The 2013 Trade Facilitation Agreement TFA has some very innovative ways of dealing with S&D.

The Norwegian government tabled a good proposal in 2019. I think we should discuss it.

We should look at all the proposals that are on the table and move forward with them.

Every country wants to make a contribution, work with the organisation. Because every country stands to benefit.

Q: How would you fix the WTO Appellate Body?

This involves going back to basics. The Dispute Settlement Understanding tells us how this mechanism should function. It tells us what the Appellate Body should look like, what the panels should look like, what time frames they should work with, how the panellists should address legal issues.

Countries came up with an interim solution – the Multiparty Interim Appeals Arbitration Agreement – because the Appellate Body has ceased to exist. But if the Appellate Body had existed they would not have resorted to other options.

Q: How would you deal with the deep rifts between the US, China and the European Union in the organisation?

The big users of the system have a very special responsibility. I would persuade them to use the WTO, its rules, its practices and its values to address the differences between them.  I would also persuade the big members that their presence is so critical for the system that the rest of the membership would be very happy to support any efforts they make.

There is a feeling that some of the rules are not strong enough, that they are lax, that they need to be strengthened. Then we need to look at the rules and strengthen them and negotiate new ones so that they are fit for purpose.

Q: How was your first exchange with WTO members in Geneva?

It was very, very interesting. I have been in that room before. I was General Council Chair in 2005. I was also there several times as the convenor of the Nairobi ministerial conference in 2015. It wasn’t a strange room. It was familiar.

It is always a bit of a trepidation. You don’t know what is going to be asked. But I enjoyed the experience. I was able to listen to member states and understand the issues that are of concern to them and that they want addressed. It was a very healthy exchange. I enjoyed it and I thank them very much for it.

The overwhelming feeling is that something needs to be done and trust and confidence injected into the system.

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