WIPO’s Gurry Discusses Iran/North Korea; Denies Whistleblower Retaliation

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World Intellectual Property Organization Director General Francis Gurry today said the UN agency has cut off its programme of providing computer equipment to countries in order to eliminate doubts in “certain countries” about the programme as it relates to Iran and North Korea, and said he is moving swiftly to establish an independent review. He also said that he would authorise any WIPO official with competence for the programme to testify about it if asked, and denied any retaliation against whistleblowers.

At issue is a longstanding technical assistance programme of providing hardware to about 80 countries with the aim of helping them to access and participate in the international intellectual property system.

WIPO maintains that it did not do anything wrong. Its activities will be reviewed by the UN sanctions committees for Iran and North Korea, sources said. Both countries are members of WIPO.

Yesterday, WIPO announced it would discontinue sending computers to all countries and would conduct a review (IPW, WIPO, 19 July 2012).

“There’s a relatively small number of countries who benefit from hardware as opposed to our complete software package,” Gurry said. “And since certain member states perceive that there is some ambiguity in the use of standard IT equipment – printers, cartridges, PCs and servers – we think the only complete answer we can give because of their perception of ambiguity is to say, we no longer do that.”

“We can argue for hours and hours and hours about the legal interpretation, that it’s only a few PCs, and so on,” he said. “But if there’s lingering doubt, let’s eliminate it.”

Gurry is working to identify someone to carry out a review of WIPO technical assistance to UN-sanctioned countries. “We’re considering who is best placed to do this,” he said, “as far as I’m concerned as soon as possible.” Timing will depend on the person or agency that does the review, who he will appoint, he said.

“We are taking time to find an appropriately neutral and independent, an unassailable person,” he said.

US Pressure

The US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a strongly worded letter to Gurry this week expressing “grave concern” about WIPO’s decision to ship the computers, but also countering assertions by WIPO that it has not engaged in wrongdoing. The letter, signed by the Republican and Democratic committee leaders, accused Gurry of “ongoing attempts to keep these technology transfers a secret within your organization.”

The 16 July letter from the House committee available here [pdf], also said: “Even more troubling are allegations that your primary focus on this issue has not been full disclosure of all relevant information on these projects in Iran and North Korea, but rather discovering and punishing whistleblowers who initially alerted outside bodies about these transactions.”

Gurry flatly denied any retaliation against whistleblowers. “I don’t know of any action that has been taken against any whistleblower related to DPRK and Iran. None.” North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

According to a March letter to the House committee posted here, the person who called attention to the issue was WIPO Staff Council President Moncef Kateb, who wrote on behalf of the Council to the chair of the UN Joint Inspection Unit.

Gurry said that despite the 16 July date of the House letter, he just received it after midnight last night, and that he “has had absolutely no contact with them.” He did say he feels he has a political obligation to answer them.

The House letter seemed to imply they had contact with him. “With regard to your claim to confidentiality in documents provided to us, the information they contain is exactly what WIPO, as a governmental agency, should be providing to all its stakeholders,” it said.

The House committee is planning to hold a hearing on the issue soon, according to sources. Gurry said that he would allow an appropriate WIPO staffperson to testify if asked. A “properly competent person who was related to these activities in an official and authorised manner, who I am confident knows about the activities in question, will be authorised,” he said.

He pointed to the WIPO organisational chart published on the website that specifies areas of responsibility for every person. Responsibility for this area, after Gurry himself, might also include a deputy director general, assistant director general or the legal counsel.

Given the highly politicised environment in the United States just months before the presidential election, questions may be asked about why a committee controlled by the opposition party to President Obama is jumping on this issue so vigorously. They may also ask whether within WIPO there is a mounting effort to tarnish the image of the director who will face re-election in two years.

But for now it is the congressional committee that is asking the questions. “On the face of it,” the letter said, “the documentary record, coupled with your public statements, shows a shocking and intolerable lack of judgment, together with an inclination to disregard the legitimate concerns of Member States and to retaliate against your staff who are simply trying to tell the truth.”

By the Numbers

The House committee has suggested that the US suspend its funding for WIPO. But while members of Congress may be accustomed to this working in environments, where, based the size of its economy, the US can throw its financial weight around, at WIPO, the United States only provides a very small portion of the budget. Some 93 percent of WIPO’s budget comes from fees for its services (including many US lawyers and businesses).

The US government is one of five top government contributors to WIPO (along with France, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom), giving about US$ 1.1 million per year.

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

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