Unconventional interference

  • 14/07/1994

Unconventional interference While P V Narasimha Rao was meeting Bill Clinton to discuss "mutual" problems like intellectual property rights, the US had already reneged on the Biodiversity Convention by interpreting that GATT rules override matters related to technology transfer and intellectual property rights in the Convention. Thus, the US has not only violated the specific clause in the Convention that holds it supreme over GATT, but is also snatching away the main benefits which India and some other developing countries had negotiated at Rio.

The official US interpretation, finally released last month in Washington, says, "The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement will function as a floor for substantive protection for intellectual property rights by GATT-TRIPS parties under the Biodiversity Convention." The US has chosen to see the clause in the Convention on technology transfer to developing countries as being "voluntary" and not binding -- taking away another major gain that the developing countries had wrangled.

Industrial applause
This interpretation has been applauded by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, an international trade body representing over 500 biotechnology companies, which made a forceful presentation at the US Senate hearing. The Convention makes it mandatory for the industrialised countries to provide biotechnologies to the developing world on "fair and favourable terms" in return for the use of genetic resources. India, supported by Malaysia and Brazil, was the major proponent of this clause at Rio, which has been severely limited by the US by the interpretation that parties "must ensure that any access to or transfer of technology that occurs, recognises and is consistent with the adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights...".

This overturns the clause that gives the Convention the final say as far as conservation of biodiversity is concerned. "This Convention is regarded by developing countries as some sort of an international cash cow to transfer wealth and technology from developed nations," said Senator Jesse Helms at the Senate hearing on the Convention on April 12, reflecting the official view.

Buckling under pressure from the American pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, the US interpretive statement seeks to turn the Convention around to provide more incentives to them, while at the same time reducing their remunerative liability for gaining access to the developing world's genetic material and knowledge. The American interpretation also turns the sharing of benefits of biodiversity with the developing world into a "voluntary" agreement.

Fears come true
The often-expressed anxiety of the developing world that the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is on the way to become the sole mechanism to finance biodiversity projects is also coming true. The US sees GEF as the only financial mechanism to fund projects in the developing world. The damaging evaluation of GEF's ability and competence in financing biodiversity projects has not induced the US to change its mind.

The Biodiversity Convention was expected to be an important lever to reform the way business is conducted globally so that its current negative affect on plant and animal diversity in the world is reduced. But the US interpretation has twisted the spirit of the Convention, signed by 150 countries and ratified by more than 50 of them, to suit its own industrial interests.

Since India did not debate its interests in Parliament like the US, and has thus failed to issue its own interpretation when ratifying the Convention, the Prime Minister should have strongly taken the US to task for subverting a multilateral agreement and asked them to repudiate its interpretation. Will the Indian Government take some action for the sake of our various communities, rich in knowledge and tradition, but economically deprived?