The World Trade Organization chief announced Thursday he will step down on August 31, a year before his term ends, despite the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the global economy.
Roberto Azevedo said it had been a "personal decision" reached with his family, and stressed that he was not leaving to pursue "political opportunities".
"This is a decision that I do not take lightly," Azevedo told member state representatives, according to a written version of his speech. Azevedo's early departure will come at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the global economy and international trade into turmoil, facing downturns not seen since the Great Depression.
Global trade, already hit by political tensions and uncertainties around Brexit, is expected to register "double-digit declines" in volumes in nearly all regions this year, the WTO said last month. The 164-member organization was already in crisis before the pandemic hit, dealing with raging trade wars and scathing criticism by United States under President Donald Trump, who has pushed for reforms of the Geneva-based body.
Referring to Azevedo's announcement, Trump told a White House briefing Thursday that "I'm ok with it," adding "The World Trade Organization is horrible".
- 'New post-COVID realities' -
Azevedo meanwhile said he was "convinced that this decision serves the best interests of this organization."
The 62-year-old Brazilian career diplomat, who became the WTO chief in 2013, suggested that an early change of leadership would help it face "new post-COVID realities".
He also insisted his move would avoid weighing down the WTO's 12th ministerial conference next year with the difficult process of finding his successor.
"My departure in August will give you the time you need to work with my successor - whoever she or he may be - to shape the strategic direction for MC12 and the months and years that follow," he said.
He said that the current slowdown in activity due to measures taken to curb the COVID-19 pandemic offered an opportune time to seek his replacement. EU trade chief Phil Hogan said in a statement that he agreed.
"It is essential that we quickly chart a new path ahead at this critical and uncertain time for trade. It makes sense to proceed now with the succession process rather than wait until next year," he said.
Not everyone agreed the timing was right, however.
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