Two women left in running for WTO head, ensuring first female leader in its history

Choice between South Korean trade minister and former Nigerian finance minister

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GENEVA — Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee are the final candidates to head the World Trade Organization, ensuring the watchdog will have the first female leader in its 25-year history.

The WTO said on Thursday the two women were the remaining candidates for director-general after the field was cut from five to two, confirming what Reuters reported on Wednesday.

The winner will replace Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down a year earlier than expected at the end of August.

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The WTO, under fire by the U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration which froze its appeals body by blocking its appointment of judges, aims to find a successor for Azevedo by early November. It is also trying to navigate worsening U.S.-China trade relations.

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“Both of the women that are in the final round are remarkably well-qualified. This is something on which everyone has agreed,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters, making the announcement at its Geneva headquarters.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, a former Nigerian finance and foreign minister, is an economist and development specialist now serving as board chair of global vaccine alliance Gavi. She has said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

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Yoo, 53, South Korea’s trade minister, is pitching herself as a seasoned operator on trade in increasingly protectionist times after clinching deals with the United States, China and others, while supporting global trading rules.

Kenyan sports minister Amina Mohamed, Saudi royal court adviser Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri and British ex-international trade minister Liam Fox dropped out of the race after failing to garner sufficient backing from the WTO’s 164 members.

The WTO will hold a third and final selection round on Oct. 19-27, with a view to having a director-general in place by early November, when the U.S. presidential election also takes place.

“I don’t think the domestic political situation of any country has really entered into this at all, as far as I can tell,” Rockwell said when asked if the U.S. vote had had an impact.

The winning candidate will face formidable challenges with rising global tensions and protectionism during a COVID-induced slowdown, as well as pressure to drive reforms.

WTO negotiations on cutting subsidies on fishing are due to conclude in December, Rockwell said, adding: “It’s clear that whichever woman assumes this job will have a very full plate from day one.”

? Thomson Reuters 2020

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