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GENEVA - Trade officials have been caught off guard by the sudden announcement that World Trade Organization Chief Roberto Azevedo will step down on Aug. 31, one year before his second term was to expire.
The Brazilian diplomat said he did not make this decision lightly as the multilateral trading system has been at the center of his career since 1997.
Roberto Azevedo said his tenure as director-general of the World Trade Organization has been the most demanding, exciting and gratifying period in his professional life.
But he said stepping down from his post early will allow members to select his successor in the coming months and start shaping the WTO's post-COVID-19 realities.
'Time to plan'
He said it makes sense to choose a new WTO leader in advance of next year's 12th Ministerial conference, or MC12. He said that would allow preparations for the important meeting to go ahead without interference.
"As we have seen, I think we must give my successor sufficient time to plan, together with you, the path not only for MC12, but also for how the conference fits in your plans for the future of the organization," Azevedo said.
Azevedo said that is a hard task, one that requires careful deliberation and time to advance such discussions. He said the earlier the new director-general takes office the better.
"As I see it, MC12 should be a stepping stone to the future of the WTO," Azevedo said. "It should tie together our various ongoing efforts in a coherent approach and lay the foundations for subsequent reform."
Champion of free trade
WTO chief Azevedo is seen as a champion of free trade and of international cooperation at a time when globalization and multilateralism has come under attack from many quarters, most notably from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
His resignation in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time of global economic turmoil has left a leadership vacuum. Azevedo will not be around to try to mediate escalating trade conflicts between the world's two economic superpowers, China and the United States.
Azevedo's departure is viewed by many as a serious blow to the cause of international cooperation. Even U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer expressed his regrets. In a statement, he noted Azevedo had led the WTO with grace and a steady hand despite the organization's many shortcomings.