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The First African and First Woman is appointed to head the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the Work of the WTO on Ecommerce

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has taken office having been elected by the Member States in January. Her main rival, from Korea, withdrew after President Biden became US President in January. The new Director General has a difficult task. Although the USA has now re-pledged its support for the WTO, Trump’s 4 years of negativity and non-cooperation (for example on the appointment of judges at the WTO’s Arbitration Court) plus the trade wars between the USA and China and the EU and China create major challenges for the new DG to produce successes.

The WTO started discussing ecommerce-related trade issues (including the Moratorium on Customs Duties for cross-border electronic transmissions) a number of years ago. These discussions fall under the “JSI Committee”. India and SA have issued a paper criticizing the JSI and suggesting that it is not fit for purpose. On the same day, 19 February, the UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General issued a statement supporting the JSI. Given that the JSI process has been going for some years the timing of the India/SA attack appears to be aiming a challenge at the newly appointed Director-General of the WTO, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

However, maybe of greater importance, Dr Wampele Mene, Secretary General of the AfCFTA, has made it clear that the AfCFTA Protocol on ecommerce will be based on the JSI work, although he too added his voice to the criticisms on world trade agreements, which greeted Dr Okonjo-Iweala on her arrival at the WTO. Dr Mene called for ways to ensure that the developed world does not use the WTO to derail the AfCFTA (see below the comment on the AfCFTA).

Meanwhile, at the JSI’s first meeting of 2021 its co-chair, Ambassador George Mina (of Australia), commended WTO members for finalizing a clean negotiating text on the issue of Spam (unsolicited commercial messages). Amb. Mina said that 2021 will be  critical for the ecommerce initiative and stressed that members need to intensify the pace of talks to deliver on the goal of substantial progress by the 12th Ministerial Conference due to take place later in the year.

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Alastair Tempest

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