Collapse Of WTO Talks Washes Away Hope For TRIPS Changes

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By William New
Seven-year negotiations at the World Trade Organization collapsed today after an intensive nine-day ministerial snagged on an agricultural issue. And with the end of the Doha Round of trade negotiations for the foreseeable future go the hopes of some members of amending global trade rules on intellectual property to better prevent biopiracy and to raise protection of distinctive goods deriving from particular regions, called geographical indications.

These IP issues were discussed consistently by key delegations (IPW, WTO/TRIPS, 29 July 2008), but never rose to the level of full negotiation during the WTO mini-ministerial in Geneva that began on 21 July. The main issues remained agriculture and manufactured goods.

The week included a number of preliminary agreements but contained a deadly pill in agriculture. Talks fell apart after an agricultural safeguard measure for developing countries to raise tariffs in cases of import surges could not be resolved after 60 hours of deliberation. In progressive press briefings, ministers from both sides of the issue sounded particularly disappointed that a single issue would trip up the whole round, but Indonesia on behalf of the Group of 33 developing nations (which was represented by India in the group of seven governments that carried out much of the talks) told reporters the group as well as a majority of all developing countries tried in good faith to come up with an acceptable text and were still engaged on the issue when talks were ceased.

“It cannot be said the SSM [special safeguard mechanism] broke the negotiations, because we were ready to negotiate,” said Indonesia Trade Minister Mari E. Pangestu. “We still strongly consider an agreement was reachable.” She named several other issues problematic to ministers, including geographical indications. She also said talks could continue at some point in the future.

Ministers and WTO Director General Pascal Lamy Tuesday night would not predict whether talks would be resumed, but all agreed it would be extremely unlikely to come by the target of year’s end. “I don’t think there is any realistic chance of modalities being agreed this year or in the foreseeable future, and that is a source of deep regret in Europe,” said European Union External Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

But it may be decided at the formal Trade Negotiations Committee meeting – expected on Thursday[correction: Wednesday] – to capture all of the gains made so far, which might include the IP issues, though they barely moved past procedural questions of whether two issues have a mandate for negotiation.

The three IP issues under consideration are: 1) the establishment of an international register of wines and spirits geographical indications – product names associated with places and characteristics (“GI register”); 2) the possibility of extending higher level GI protection (TRIPS Article 23) to products other than wines and spirits (“GI extension”); and 3) a proposed amendment to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that would bring it in line with obligations under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adding a requirement for disclosure of origin in patent applications and possibly ensuring benefit-sharing with communities to deter biopiracy (“CBD amendment”).

The GI extension and TRIPS CBD amendment do not have clear negotiating mandates in this round. All sides agree on negotiating the GI register, which was mandated in the 2001 Doha Declaration, but they have been far apart on details, especially legal matters.

While any continuation of this round, which began in Doha, Qatar in 2001, is unclear, ministers all stated their commitment to the WTO multilateral system. Lamy said negotiations will always be conducted at the WTO in some form, occasionally rising to the level of involving ministers, which he said in his experience is often needed to achieve real breakthroughs. But some mentioned a rethinking of the current trading system, the WTO, and the focus of negotiations, which could move to new topics like climate change.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what will happen to the TRIPS issues. One possibility is that focus could intensify bilaterally or at other institutions such as the World Intellectual Property Organization.

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. [...] While sources say that the discussions begun Wednesday are “without prejudice to a mandate,” it is the first time members have had a dedicated forum since the failed July ministerial meeting that covered them along with the third issue, under the chairmanship of Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Støre (IPW, WTO, 29 July 2008). [...]

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