Some 135 public interest groups have written to US President Bill Clinton expressing serious concerns over his administration's opposition at the WTO, the World Intellectual Property Organization and elsewhere to attempts of developing countries to reform the TRIPS Agreement.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 12 July 2000 -- Some 135 public interest international and national non-governmental groups from 35 countries, including the Green Group of the European Parliament, have written to US President Bill Clinton expressing deep concern over his administration’s consistent opposition at the WTO, WIPO and elsewhere to reform the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement to promote equity and sustainable development.

The initial sign-ons on the letter has among others the US Minnesota-based Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy (which coordinated the letter), some international NGOs like ActionAid, the Indigenous Peoples’ Biodiversity Network and the Centre for International Environmental Law, and national chapters of such groups as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth from the US and Europe, and The Edmonds Institute of the USA, the Green Group of MEPs of the European Parliament.

The signatories from some 34 active US groups, and others from around the world, have expressed particular concerns over the US opposition to countries reforming their patent systems to implement the provisions of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The signatories have charged the Clinton administration with over-simplifications and mis-statements to answer public concerns over life patents, food security, human and ecological health and social equity.

The US, the letter said, has been showing consistent opposition at the WTO, the World Intellectual Property Organization and elsewhere to attempts of developing countries to reform the TRIPS Agreement.

The US, they point out, has been opposing attempts by developing countries to reform the patent systems in order to implement provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

At the WIPO Diplomatic Conference on the Patent Law Treaty in June, the NGOs complained, the US government had pressured Colombia and other developing countries “to weaken and finally withdraw a proposal seeking to promote the interests of indigenous communities by protecting their traditional knowledge, thus implementing Article 8 (j) of the CBD and ensuring these communities share in the benefits of their genetic resources.”

By forcing the removal of this proposal - which merely suggested that patents should register that genetic resources were taken legally under an access contract rather than stolen without permission—the United States has undermined not only the interests of indigenous communities abroad, but also the interests of its own indigenous people, the NGO signatories charged.

“This conduct contradicts the US Administration’s own public policy statements, including those asserting that the ‘WTO TRIPS Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity are not in conflict and can both be implemented in a manner that fully supports the objectives of each agreement’.”

The signatories expressed their further disappointment that the US Government had responded to their concerns (in an earlier letter) about the impacts of life patents on food security, human and ecological health, and social equity “with over-simplifications and mis-statements.”

“Specifically, the government stated that the ‘TRIPS Agreement does not contain any obligation to provide patent protection to plants and animals as they occur in nature’ and went on to cite most of the particulars of TRIPS Article 27.3(b) -- but neglected to make any reference to the explicit obligation on all WTO member states to provide for patents on micro-organisms and microbiological processes from which complete plants and animals are made.”

Nor had the US government made any comment on certain ambiguous language within 27.3(b): whether a nation may exclude from patenting a plant or animal that has been genetically modified, and how a nation is to distinguish between ‘essentially biological processes’ which may be exempted from patenting and ‘microbiological processes’ which may not.

“It would be helpful to know the United States’ position on this matter, and we thank you in advance for your reply,” the signatories said.

They called on the administration to support the developing countries and in particular the African Group proposal at the WTO on a proposal to clarify ‘that plants and animals as well as microorganisms and all other living organisms and their parts cannot be patented, and that natural processes that produce plants, animals and other living organisms should also not be patentable.’

The signatory NGOs also expressed their support for those developing country governments that have argued for amendments to TRIPS to expand the exceptions to patentability to include the list of essential drugs published by the World Health Organization.

“We also support their call for developed countries including the United States to ensure the operationalization of the TRIPS Agreement’s objectives in articles 7 and 8; the implementation of the article 66.2 obligation to ensure the transfer of technology to enable least-developed countries to create a sound technological base, and the extension of transitional arrangements.”

“The TRIPS Agreement,” the signatories reiterated, “must be revised to prevent all living organisms, their parts and all natural processes that produce living organisms from being patented. In addition, amendments to TRIPS should ensure the protection of innovations of indigenous and local farming communities; the continuation of traditional farming processes including the right to use, exchange and save seeds, and promote food security - clarifying once and for all that the WTO must be consistent with the CBD.”

The NGOs urged the Clinton administration to instruct the Office of the United States Trade Representative to revise its position in the TRIPS review process at the WTO, as well as in other multilateral and bilateral negotiations, so as to protect biological diversity and the rights of all those affected by the WTO’S TRIPS agreement including producers and consumers of knowledge within the United States and other sovereign states, indigenous peoples and farming communities - and to otherwise act in a manner fully consistent with the CBD.-SUNS4707

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

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