Final WTO talks under way on selecting new leader, delegates say

GENEVA (Reuters) - World Trade Organization members are conducting final consultations this week on selecting a new director-general (DG) and are widely expected to endorse Nigeria’s candidate at their next formal meeting, delegates said on Monday.

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Washington backed Nigerian former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Friday, reversing its previous opposition and prompting her to express optimism about her appointment.

In another positive step, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, the former rival who withdrew from the race last week, said in a tweet on Monday she would “work closely with the new DG”, suggesting Seoul will not try to block Okonjo-Iweala.

The chair of the WTO’s top decision-making body, David Walker, sent a communique to members on Monday saying he planned urgent consultations on the next DG and would fix a date to make a decision, according to two sources who saw the document.

The decision requires consensus by all 164 member states.

“Ngozi will be announced at the next General Council,” said a delegate. It was not clear when that council would be.

The Geneva-based global trade watchdog has gone for months without a head during one of the most difficult periods in its 26-year history, with members at odds over reforms seen as critical for its survival. The last WTO chief, Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, left a year early in August, citing personal reasons.

The WTO is still reeling from attacks by the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump which called it “horrible” and crippled its workings by blocking judge appointments to its top appeals body on trade disputes.

New U.S. President Joe Biden has struck a different tone, saying it is committed to “positive, constructive and active engagement” with members on reforming the WTO.

“Hopefully we can now start to look at how to fix the WTO rather than how to pull it apart,” said a second delegate.

Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Mark Heinrich