Reuters Edge

Australian diplomat tipped as WTO chair

GENEVA (Reuters) - Australia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is likely to be named chairman of the body, taking up the reins in a key year for the institution, officials and diplomats said on Monday.

A view of the sixth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conferences at Hong Kong's Convention and Exhibition Centre December 14, 2005. REUTERS/Paul Yeung

This year could see a deal at last in the long-running Doha round of negotiations to open up world trade.

And it could also see the launch of the recruitment process for a new director-general, if the current head, Pascal Lamy, decides not to seek a second term.

Officials and diplomats said Australian ambassador Bruce Gosper, who currently chairs the WTO’s dispute settlement body, responsible for umpiring trade disputes worth billions of dollars, was leading the field to replace Malaysia’s Muhammad Noor as chairman of the policy-making general council.

The chairs of the WTO’s regular committees, including the council which runs the WTO day-to-day, change every year. Ambassadors will approve new chairmen for 12-month terms at the next council meeting on February 5-6.

Three of the key chairmen -- of the general council, the dispute settlement body and of the trade policy review body -- are currently taking soundings among members for the new names.

“This is the least transparent part of the WTO’s work because it involves the egos of people who are actually here,” said one official.


The head of the dispute settlement body often moves on to chair the council, so in some respects the selection of a new disputes chief to replace Gosper is a nomination for the council chairman in 2009, one Asian diplomat noted.

Traditionally the dispute settlement body chair alternates between developed and developing countries, and within developing countries, among continents.

This year it will be Latin America and the Caribbean’s turn. Colombia’s Claudia Uribe and Jamaica’s Gail Marie Mathurin are both possibilities for the influential role, officials and diplomats said.

During Gosper’s tenure, he helped steer the WTO through one of the gravest crises in its 13-year history, when Taiwan vetoed the appointment of a Chinese jurist to the WTO’s supreme court, the appellate body, paralyzing dispute settlement work.

Gosper is a career diplomat and civil servant, born in 1957.

Whoever takes over as general council chairman would work with Lamy to steer the Doha round, launched in late 2001, to a conclusion.

A group of key trade ministers pledged at talks on Saturday to do all they could to finish the round this year, and Lamy will brief ambassadors from the main countries on the talks on Wednesday, and from all the WTO’s 151 members on Thursday.

Lamy, who reports to the council chairman, must announce by December 1 this year whether he wants a second four-year term. If he stands down the council chairman would recruit a successor to take over from September 1, 2009.

The power of the council chairman depends on the relationship he or she forges with the director-general. Some chairmen in the past have been the driving force at the WTO, when the director-general was weak because he was not appointed with the support of all members.

“There’s no question that Lamy runs this place,” said one official.

The chairmen of the committees negotiating sections of the Doha round, such as New Zealand’s ambassador Crawford Falconer on agriculture, remain for the duration of the negotiations or until they leave Geneva.

Editing by Andrew Roche