WIPO Scrounges For Funds For Indigenous Participants In Key Treaty Negotiations

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World Intellectual Property Organization members are nearing conclusion of negotiations for an international instrument or instruments on issues critical to indigenous peoples, such as protection of traditional indigenous knowledge, practices and genetic resources. But the WIPO membership as a whole has been miserly when it comes to funding indigenous peoples’ participation in the process, and now many are in danger of being left out of the process.

The amount of funding needed to get people to the meetings is miniscule compared to some of the budget figures thrown around at WIPO or within national governments. Each participant costs less than $5,000 per meeting.

A voluntary fund for governments to make donations so that some indigenous people can attend meetings has been in place since 2005, but it is continually on the verge of running out of funds, and is now at zero – “bereft of funds” – as WIPO Director General Francis Gurry said in his opening remarks today.

For this week’s meeting, Australia and New Zealand came to rescue at the last minute so that four people (out of much longer list) could attend the negotiation. Australia gave CHF 15,000 Swiss francs, and New Zealand CHF 4,694 Swiss francs.

“We are now in a position where we need further contributions for future meetings,” Gurry said.

The 25th session of the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) is meeting from 15-24 July.

The problem is that despite acknowledgement of the importance of their participation in the proceedings, member states a few years ago would not agree to give WIPO funds to help indigenous people come to meetings, and they have no other recourse to the necessary funds in their countries. So they created the voluntary fund, which is in a constant struggle to stay solvent.

A meeting document from this week, WIPO/GRTKF/IC/25/INF/4 REV., shows the list of governments and foundations who have donated to the voluntary fund over the years. Among them are Switzerland, France, South Africa, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia (twice). There are glaring omissions from the list, such as the United States, Canada, numerous other European countries and large developing countries.

The total amount donated since 2005 is about CHF 624,000. By comparison, in the past two years alone, WIPO’s excess reserves have been in the tens of millions of Swiss francs. The WIPO budget for the next biennium is approximately CHF 700 million.

And yet members say that without indigenous participation, the outcome of the negotiations on international instruments in this committee will not be accepted.

“Indigenous participation is vital” for a successful outcome,” New Zealand’s delegate said today.

Switzerland, which donated CHF 150,000 to the fund in 2007, made a proposal at last week’s Program and Budget Committee meeting to have a donation to the fund from the WIPO regular budget for 2014-2015. The idea may be discussed this week during the IGC meeting, sources said. The PBC meets again in September.

Egypt in particular last week questioned the idea of helping indigenous people to participate through WIPO funding, a source said.

Meanwhile, this week an advisory board to the voluntary fund will meet this week to select indigenous applicants to participate at the next IGC meeting, should funding be available. The board has to create a hierarchy of candidates, depending on how much funding will be available, a source said. There are 16 applicants listed in the WIPO meeting document.

For this week’s meeting, funding was made available for participants from Mali, Bangladesh, Saint Lucia, and Kyrgyzstan, according to the WIPO document.

Considered sovereign, indigenous peoples have a special status in the IGC negotiations, permitted to intervene in the meetings whenever they choose, just like member states (and unlike NGOs). They do not have voting rights in the committee, however, and find a member state sponsor to make formal proposals.

The voluntary fund is designed to allow the participation of indigenous representatives that hold independent views, able to take contrary positions but adding to the legitimacy of the negotiations.

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

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