WIPO Work Likely To Continue On Traditional Knowledge, But How?

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An intergovernmental committee considering ways to protect kinds of knowledge that predate – and may not fit into – the current intellectual property system picked up this week after a chaotic round of negotiations failed to make any progress at the last meeting. Meanwhile, some indigenous groups, in whose traditions rest much of this knowledge, continue a push for stronger representation at the committee.

This week, the World Intellectual Property Organization Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) must also decide whether and how it will ask for a renewed mandate to continue negotiations that have gone on since 2001. This would be the forth extension of the group’s mandate. The IGC meeting from 29 June to 3 July.

There is “apparently a consensus on renewal of the mandate,” the committee’s chair, Rigoberto Gauto Vielman of Paraguay, told Intellectual Property Watch. The committee will “likely continue work, but how” is the remaining question, he added.

A proposal submitted by the African Group [pdf] is the basis for discussions on ways forward starting Tuesday afternoon, Gauto told Intellectual Property Watch.

Discussion on this proposal, which includes the potential of continuing meeting between official committee sessions, and on future work in general, is expected to consume much of the rest of the meeting this week, according to several sources.

In parallel, the Indigenous Peoples Caucus is continuing a push for stronger representation at the meeting. Concerns that the group – which is a coalition of indigenous observers to the IGC – not be treated as a non-governmental organisation were raised at the last meeting (IPW, Traditional Knowledge, 23 October 2008).

Indigenous people are not stakeholders in the way that civil society groups are, explained Albert Deterville of the indigenous Bethechilokono people of Saint Lucia, who chairs the Indigenous Peoples Caucus, to Intellectual Property Watch. Nor do they all have the same views, said several sources: indigenous communities come from a wide variety of circumstances, and have different needs.

“If we are saying we are the owners of our genetic resources, if we are saying we are the owners of our traditional knowledge,” then “we are not stakeholders, we are rights holders,” he said. As such, he said, “we should insist on being treated as equal partners in this negotiation.”

If states are to make decisions that affect indigenous people then there should be a mechanism for consulting indigenous people, added Deterville. “For me, as an indigenous leader, I want to sit with the government of my country and negotiate the terms of use of our resources. From the beginning, [this] must be a collaborative effort.”

But progress is being made, he said, as the Caucus was given a nameplate from which to speak during the negotiations. Governments and accredited NGOs use these plates to call for the floor to speak during meetings. The caucus does not yet have their own space in the room – they are still using the space afforded to individually accredited indigenous observers – but is hoping to have it this week, he added.

Future Work Decisions Key

The two-year mandate of the IGC expires this year, and this week’s meeting must make a recommendation for continuation to the September General Assembly if it is to go on.

The African Group proposal calls for text-based negotiations during 2010 and 2011 on intellectual property, genetic resources, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions. It also requests that by 2011, there is a text proposal for an international, legally-binding instrument or instruments on the issues. In a proposed work programme for the committee, the proposal also asks for the approval and scheduling of intersessional work between the official IGC meetings.

Issues arising during the discussions on Tuesday day included what terms of reference there might be for intersessional meetings, and who might be involved. Indigenous groups are also calling for access to these meetings if they occur, and support in order to attend.

Also to be resolved are budget concerns, in particular over intersessional work, and substantive concerns over whether an international legally binding instrument is an appropriate solution. The US in particular said that it is looking to understand what the detailed work programme will entail, and would like the secretariat to estimate costs.

Debates over future work, and in particular on intersessional work, are part of what stalled the last IGC meeting on 13-17 October 2008 (IPW, Traditional Knowledge, 18 October 2008). A last minute proposal by the chair – which many felt did not take into account developing country concerns – caused confusion in the October negotiations, and eventually resulted in a declaration of “no agreement” on the last day of the scheduled meeting.

In an informal note [pdf] circulated by Gauto on informal consultations since the last meeting, he again stated a list of issues and options for future work. These include options for the end point of the IGC negotiations, which include “(i) a binding international instrument or instruments; (ii) authoritative or persuasive interpretations or elaborations of existing legal instruments; (iii) a non-binding normative international instrument or instruments; (iv) a high-level political resolution, declaration or decision; (v) strengthened international coordination through guidelines or model laws; and, (vi) coordination of national legislative developments.”

But most governments this week started off optimistically, with many expressing hope that concrete progress towards positive results can be made.

Kaitlin Mara may be reached at kmara@ip-watch.ch.

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