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D Ravi Kanth: A Trips-plus agenda at WIPO

D Ravi Kanth 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ is a timely reminder for key actors who are bent on pushing failed agendas. As governments and multilateral institutions struggle to recover from a pervasive crisis of confidence stemming from the current political and economic climate, it is important to not make the same mistakes all over again. But the tendency is to cock a snook at such warnings.

Of late, the so-called knowledge-based companies and pharmaceutical giants in the western world — who faced public criticism when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 1990s — are staging a comeback. They are using the economic crisis to strengthen the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRs) and are busy waging a battle against compulsory licensing.

It is against this backdrop, that the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) convened a high-profile meeting to drive home the message on innovation, creativity and transfer of technology. “We have to acknowledge that intellectual property is not an end in itself, but an instrument to promote innovation, creativity and the dissemination of knowledge,” said Maximiliano Santa Cruz, Chairman of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Patents (SCP) that convened the conference.

The developing countries, however, remain sceptical about this new public relations campaign of linking intellectual property (IP) with development. The recent seizures of generic drugs on the high seas by the Netherlands customs department and the sudden shortage of anti-retroviral drugs in the five most-affected countries in Africa indicate that IP-holders and their drivers at the multilateral institutions do not genuinely mean what they preach.

Over the years, the WIPO’s overarching agenda has been somewhat dented following the World Trade Organisation’s TRIPS agreement which became a benchmark for nations. It is also gripped by a perennial crisis stemming ‘from opaque decision making, a pro-intellectual property (IP) outlook, and an imperial management style (among others),’ says Carolyn Deere, the director of the Global Trade Governance Project at Oxford.

So, when Francis Gurry, an Australian, took office on October 1, 2008 after a series of crisis, expectations got raised and there was a hope that things would change. Though Gurry won the final race just by one vote against a Brazilian candidate — which, in a way, was a source of some mystery — members, particularly from the developing world, decided to leave all the controversies behind and get on with the job of addressing the policy and institutional challenges.

Sadly, the new director general seems determined to embark on a TRIPS II agenda, says a developing country envoy, suggesting that Gurry is now adamant on upgrading the IP norm-setting activities to help the big pharma and technological companies. Apparently, he wants to re-orient the organisation to focus primarily on norm-setting tasks — more efficient provision of IP-registration services and higher respect for IP through enforcement. All these renewed activities are what the IP-holders want seek on a war footing. Effectively, they want to kill the developmental agenda — balancing IP-protection with broader and ameliorative public policy goals — that the world needs in this hour of crisis.

Though IP and the patronage system do not go hand in hand, there are allegations that plum jobs are being offered to developing country officials at WIPO to silence opposition from them on developmental issues. Over the last nine months, there has been little or no progress in addressing major policy challenges. For example, the Inter-governmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge, Genetic Resources and Folklore (the IGC) recently ended with no decision on the renewal of the mandate of the IGC after five days of acrimonious exchanges between developed and developing countries — with the director general conspicuously absent from the scene when there was an impasse, says a developing country official.

Internally, the abrupt removal of Ram Kishan Singh, a junior official, who worked for nine years in the organisation with an outstanding record and the proposed reforms in the staffing pattern raise serious questions whether developing country officials are specific targets in the onward march of a renewed western IP agenda at WIPO!

First Published: Tue, July 21 2009. 00:25 IST