UNDP advocates comprehensive review of TRIPS

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 12 July -- A comprehensive review of intellectual property rights enshrined in the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has been advocated by the UN Development Programme.

The review recommendation comes in the UNDP Human Development Report 1999 published Monday.

Liberalization, privatization and tighter intellectual property rights are shaping the path for new technologies, but the privatization and concentration of technology have gone too far, says the report.

This has enabled corporations to define research agendas, and tightly control their findings through patents under the rules of the TRIPS Agreement.

In one of the strongest indictments out of the UN system -- which before the Uruguay Round and after the WTO was established in 1995 has remained almost silent and hesitant -- the HDR 1999 says that under TRIPS, "money talks, not need", in defining the research agendas - "with cosmetics and slow-ripening tomatoes having a higher priority than drought-resistant crops or vaccine against malaria."

"The best of the new technologies - from new drugs to better seeds - are priced for those who can pay, and remain out of reach of the poor."

Tighter (intellectual) property rights raise the price of technology transfer, blocking developing countries from dynamic knowledge sector, and will enable TNCs to dominate the global market even more.

"New patent laws pay scant attention to the knowledge of indigenous people", ignoring cultural diversity in the way innovations are created and shared and the diversity in views on what ca and should be owned from plant varieties to human life, and resulting in "a silent theft of centuries of knowledge from some of the poorest communities in developing economies."

A broader perspective is needed, says HDR-1999.

IPRs, first raised in 1986 as a multilateral trade issue to crack down on counterfeit goods, has a reach now going far beyond that - "into ownership of life."

As trade, patents and copyright determine the paths of technology, and of nations, questioning today's arrangements is not just about economic flows. It is about preserving biodiversity, addressing the ethics of patenting life, ensuring access to health care, respecting forms of ownership in other cultures, and preventing a growing technological gap between knowledge-driven global economy and the rest trapped in its shadows.

IPRs under the TRIPS need comprehensive review to redress their perverse effects undermining food security, indigenous knowledge, biosafety and access to culture.

The governance of global communication, especially the Internet, must be broadened to embrace the interests of developing countries in decisions on Internet protocols, taxation, domain name allocation and telephony costs.

Public investments are needed in technologies for the needs of poor people and poor countries - in everything from seeds to computers. An international programme should be launched to support this, based on the model of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

"New funds must be raised to ensure that the information revolution leads to human development. A 'bit' tax and a patent tax could raise funds from those who already have access to technology and the proceeds used to extend benefits to all." (SUNS4475)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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