Deadlock over Doha Public Health Declaration

Geneva, 10 October (Chakravarthi Raghavan) - Talks among a key group of some 20 countries over a draft Ministerial Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health have reached a complete deadlock, with the major industrialized nations insisting on formulations that would in fact restrict the existing flexibility available to the developing countries, and enhancing the monopoly privileges and profits of the transnational corporate pharmaceutical industry.

Key developing country negotiators who have been holding talks with major industrial nations to evolve agreed language for the declaration have advised the chairman of the TRIPS Council, Amb. Boniface Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe, that no acceptable compromises could be reached.

Chidyausiku is under pressure (from the major industrial nations and the WTO secretariat) to put forward his own text, as the General Council Chair, Mr.  Stuart Harbinson has done.

If Chidyausiku were to put forward a draft, it will be one drawn up by the WTO secretariat officials in the TRIPS division - who have gained the ‘reputation’ among developing countries and civil society groups, as perhaps ‘the most partisan’ part of a partisan WTO secretariat.

About 50 developing country members of the WTO, spanning the three continents of the South, including the Africa Group, India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Peru, Venezuela and others have presented a ‘non-paper’ for a declaration.

This has been sought to be countered by some of the industrial country hardliners (all of whom are pushing for a new round with new issues) including the US, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Japan with a counter-draft, seemingly supportive of ‘flexibility’ for developing countries to ensure access to medicines for their populations, but in fact reducing this flexibility.

At the TRIPS Council meeting, the EU seemed to provide some support for developing countries, and even presented a paper of sorts, but then withdrew the paper (apparently because it had not been cleared by all its members).

The TRIPS division of the WTO secretariat, issued a non-paper, listing what it claimed to be points of convergence and those needing to be involving divergence or not full convergence.

The non-paper of the secretariat was strongly criticised at the meeting by the leading developing countries spear-heading the drive on TRIPS and Public Health.

Since that meeting, a key group of some 20 delegations, from developing countries who have been actively engaged and pursuing this issue as well as major industrial countries have been meeting in intense talks over the last several days, but find themselves deadlocked.

After spending many hours of the day and night over the last few days, developing countries have reached the conclusion that far from allowing flexibility for developing countries in using TRIPS for public health and essential medicines, the US, Switzerland and others are trying their best to reduce flexibility and enhance corporate benefits.

This group is now likely to insist that their draft proposals be forwarded to the ministers at Doha to consider and take a decision on formulating the declaration.

At the September meeting of the TRIPS Council, when the TRIPS and Public Health issues were addressed at a special meeting devoted to the subject, a number of developing countries made clear that they were not prepared to accept any formulation in a declaration that would in fact reduce or restrict their ability to adopt policies to safeguard and enhance the public health of their peoples.

At the TRIPS Council informal meeting on 21 September, India had served notice that it would not agree to a Ministerial Declaration that would reduce the flexibilities available under TRIPS, nor accept something that would merely repeat the existing TRIPS language without any added value.

Third world delegations who have been briefed by their colleagues who have been engaged in the intense negotiating exercise said that not only were the major industrial nations blocking any language that would have ministers declare that “nothing in the TRIPS shall prevent Members from taking measures to protect public health” or come in the way of ensuring access to medicines at affordable costs or even a declaration that the provisions of the TRIPS shall be interpreted in accord with the objectives and principles of the TRIPS Agreement (Articles 7 and 8).

Every attempt at compromise language has been met by language to further whittle down the available flexibility, and increase the rights of corporations, delegations who have been briefed on the discussions have reported.

A deadlock and failure to resolve this issue to the satisfaction of developing country governments and public interest health groups and activists is certain to fuel the protest movements against the WTO and corporatisation.

The corporatist media view that the “anti-globalization” movement has been stilled after the 11 March events and calls (reminiscent of the 19th and 20th century white man’s burden) for “a new imperialism” by active western interventions in “failed states” to promote democracy, civil rights and development (as Martin Wolf has done in the Financial Times), would before long meet the same fate as the Fukuyama’s “The End of History” thesis or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.”

The Harbinson draft declaration process itself is increasingly becoming a non-transparent process, at work outside the WTO (involving the majors and the secretariat) but involvement of secretariat officials, where ‘drafts’ are evolved and then find their way into a Chairman ‘s text.

Also, the Doha process and beyond is sought to be bundled into the US-EU ‘war on terrorism’, and my end up in complicating both.

These developments come even as Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) issued a report giving the lie to several of the myths about TRIPS, including the claims promoted by the WTO secretariat too, that the intellectual property protection of the TRIPS, encourages innovation and research into diseases and availability of medicines.

The MSF report challenges this view, points to the market failure and public policy failures leading to the pharmaceutical industry spending R&D on rich life-style preoccupations (obesity, impotence etc) or me-too drugs - medicines with very slight difference over existing compounds and involving no ‘invention’ or clinical advance - ; and a virtually empty pipeline of drugs for neglected diseases (those for which no cures are available).

The very limited expenditure for public health research comes not from the rich nations and their budgets, or the pharma companies, but charitable foundations (like the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation etc). – SUNS4985

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

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