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In 1st Day on Job, New WTO Chief Pushes for Fisheries Deal

Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala begins her term as WTO chief.
Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala begins her term as WTO chief.

The new head of the World Trade Organization threw her support behind long-fruitless efforts among member countries to agree on fisheries subsidies that could reduce overfishing, calling the efforts a top priority as she took office on Monday.

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist and former government minister, donned a mask and doled out elbow bumps — COVID-19 oblige — as she took up the job at WTO headquarters on the banks of Lake Geneva.

“I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do,” said Okonjo-Iweala, 66, who is both the first woman and the first African to hold the job. “I feel ready to go.”

Negotiators have been tasked with striking an agreement that could help eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and prohibit some fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Member states of the WTO, which works to craft accords that can ensure smooth international trade, have struggled to reach an agreement on fisheries after roughly two decades of work. Okonjo-Iweala called for finalizing the negotiations “as soon as possible,” and credited Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills, who chairs the talks on fisheries subsidies, for his “really hard" work.

“My presence is to try and support him proactively to try and unblock the situation so he can complete the fantastic work he has been doing,” she said alongside Wills as they met with various advocacy groups outside the WTO gates. “It has been 20 years — and 20 years is enough.”

“Things are not easy when members are negotiating and there are still a lot of critical issues that need to be sorted out,” she said. "But we are hopeful.”

Wills said it was “music to my ears to see on the first day the (director general) comes here and makes a statement on the fisheries negotiations.”

Okonjo-Iweala's first day also consisted of meeting staffers and attending her first meeting of the General Council, made up of top envoys from the trade body’s 164 member states. The closed-door council meeting was largely held by videoconference because of measures aimed to fight the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala’s victory in the race last fall was delayed largely because the U.S. administration under Donald Trump supported another candidate. Her appointment came through last month when the Biden administration cleared the way for her selection at the trade body, whose rules require consensus.

The WTO is facing headwinds such as rising protectionism. Its dispute settlement system has been blocked because the U.S. has almost singlehandedly prevented appointments to its Appellate Body — a rough equivalent to an appeals court.

Okonjo-Iweala said last month that “wide-ranging reforms” are needed, vowing that a first priority would be to address the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic — such as by working to lift export restrictions on supplies and vaccines to get them distributed to countries in need.