Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Time to rethink TRIPS?

Today the WTO Director-General has announced his recommendation given to the parties to suspend the negotiations of the Doha Round. The Doha Round, the Doha Development Round, was supposed to correct the asymmetries and inequities embedded in the result of the Uruguay Round, especially evident in the spirit, text and implementation of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, or TRIPS. Many, if not most, developing countries accepted TRIPS (those that were not coerced into accepting it) with the expectation that it would be both easier to deal with developed countries demands on intellectual property rights in a multilateral forum like WTO and that in exchange developed countries would make concessions in agricultural subsides. However, the first expectation was rapidly quashed when United States and Europe started a process of bilateral and regional trade agreements where intellectual property rights were the main component and included obligation beyond TRIPS even when the TRIPS’ implementation period had not expired, and the second one was quashed today when the “chronicle of an announced death” came to an end and the expected failure of the Doha Round was materialized.
Accordingly, it is possible to argue that the compromises assumed by developing countries in the field of intellectual property rights could and should be revised, based on equitable, moral and legal reasons. Developed countries have clearly not stood up to their promises and in addition it could be argued that, following general principles of law, an agreement can be voided when there is an obvious inequivalence between the obligations of the parties. Since the mutual obligations between developed and developing countries might have been balanced by the Round that just collapsed, it is arguable that the original ones also can be set apart (without even analysing the fact that an agreement entered into by coercion, as the one exercised by the US with the use of the Special 301, is void ab initio). Of course, even the neophytes in international law would point out, correctly, that Art 38 (1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice mentions both international conventions and general principles of law as sources of international law but there is wide consensus that there is a hierarchy between them, and that international conventions are, therefore, the ones that prevail in case of conflict. However, during the last few years several developed countries have openly violated international agreements dealing with torture, treatment of prisoners and countries’ right to self determination, which in addition are part of the ius cogens or international peremptory law that prevails over any other source of law, based on their unilateral assessment of their national interest and making unilateral, very debatable interpretations of those fundamental international agreements. Thus, taking into account that TRIPS agreement standing alone clearly has a negative impact on developing countries’ public health, access to knowledge and food security, developing countries would have the legal right to suspend its effect, founded on their national interest, until developed countries fulfil their part of their bargain by reaching a successful agreement on dismantling agricultural subsides as promised at the start of the Doha Round.

1 comment:

Anne St. Martin said...

I agree with you completely. I was in Dhaka this spring for a Health Action International conference that was looking at the percarious position of Bangladesh as the only least developed country with pharmaceutical manufacturing capability, and thanks to Doha Waiver (cough) as of 2005 the only WTO member state that can still make generics of patented drugs. But of course the US is pressuring Bangladesh with bilateral trade agreements laced with stronger IP clauses, which if accepted would essentially kill the strongest prospect for generic manufacturing left in the developing/least developed world.