Battle Rages Over WIPO DG As Staff Dissents, Africa Cries Racism 17/10/2007 by William New, Intellectual Property Watch 16 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)By William New Hundreds of employees at the World Intellectual Property Organization, a prominent United Nations agency, have signed a petition calling on WIPO Director General Kamil Idris to put the organisation’s interests before his own in addressing allegations that he misrepresented his age on official documents and possibly engaged in other untoward activities. Idris is under pressure to step down by countries that see him as having lost the ability to lead the organisation. Meanwhile, the African Group of nations at WIPO raised the stakes in the debate with a press communiqué calling the attempt mainly by developed countries to get Idris to resign a racist and xenophobic attack. WIPO Staff Appeal on Idris (in French and English) available to IPW subscribers. African Group Communiqué on Idris available to IPW subscribers. Not a subscriber? Please click here. An acrid debate has been playing out on the front-page Intellectual Property Watch comment section, www.ip-watch.org, over the past two weeks. Many comments have focused on a series of letters published in the Inside Views section, including an open letter calling on Idris to resign from a diverse group of WIPO employees calling itself “Cincinnatus.” [This refers to a Roman farmer who was chosen as dictator from humble circumstances and within weeks led the Roman army to victory before returning to the field, according to sources.] A number of comments support Idris but there are a variety of others as well. Nigerian patent agent Edwin Nnametu said “the recent spotlight on WIPO which has put her on the lower rung of the scale” and called for restraint. Philip Gough (pseudonym) wrote, “The question is not any more about Kamil Idris’ future but about the future of the organisation,” and raised questions about the possible hiring of family members of ambassadors or other officials who have then been supportive to Idris, a common allegation. The WIPO staff list, recently obtained by Intellectual Property Watch, shows that there may be some truth to this. Another commenter criticised the press release from the September-October General Assemblies, which ended inconclusively for apparently the first time in WIPO history. The release was not issued until five days after the event, and made no mention of the issue that dominated the entire meeting: the effort to investigate and remove Idris and his team. Several comments were so caustic they were not published on the IP-Watch website. One commenter recounted specific questions that are, according to sources, persistently raised in the WIPO corridors about the nature of the director general’s connection to his special adviser Khamis Suedi who quietly stepped down in 2005 while under investigation by the Swiss authorities for possible links to the UN oil-for-food scandal, whether a security guard was suddenly given an unusually high promotion while he was suing WIPO, whether a WIPO staffperson oversaw Idris’ personal swimming pool construction during work hours, and whether some money is missing from WIPO. None of these persistent questions has been proven despite some investigation and WIPO has criticised those who perpetuate them. Another set of comments alleged criminality, which has not been found. Rising Tide of Dissatisfaction More than 230 employees (of various contract types) in the past week signed an appeal stating: “Considering the unrelenting controversy surrounding your stewardship of the organisation, the loss of trust among a broad segment of the member states in your leadership of the organisation as displayed at this year’s Assemblies, the damage which the above causes to the future well-being of the organisation, we call upon you not to place your own personal interests above those of the organisation and its staff.” An accompanying note to the appeal explained that employees were offered the opportunity to sign the appeal without the involvement of the WIPO Staff Association and within three days more than 230 had signed. The list of signers was not circulated but was verified by a Geneva notary who has possession of the original signature pages. These pages may be viewed only by the director general, president of the staff association, ombudsman, internal auditor and legal counsel, all of whom, plus some others, have received the note. Efforts continue to get more signatures without disruption to the work of the secretariat, the note said, and the Staff Association is asked to help ensure this, as is the administration. “The administration is kindly requested not to interfere with the right of the organisation’s employees to express their views in a dignified and respectful manner,” it said. An independent report by consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers issued in June found a prevailing attitude among WIPO employees is a “lack of pride” in the organisation and an acceptance of needed change to the organisational culture (IPW, WIPO, 10 July 2007). According to that report, which found management problems, there were approximately 1,600 full-time and short-term employees at WIPO in 2006. Africa Takes a Stand Idris originally came from Sudan. The African Group communiqué said it “condemns in the strongest terms possible the dimension the campaign of calumny and intimidation against the Director-General of WIPO, Dr. Kamil Idris, has now taken.” The group added its call “for an immediate and unconditional end to this insidious campaign against the Director-General and his region of origin.” The communiqué, dated 11 October and reportedly circulated to member governments and bearing no signature, referenced a cartoon it said had been circulated in Geneva that depicts Idris in a racist way. According to the communiqué, the cartoon showed Idris against a background of a Swiss flag as a black sheep being kicked out of a group of white sheep. This is a reflection of the highly charged political poster used by the far-right Swiss People’s Party of Christoph Blocher, the Swiss justice minister, who campaigns on an anti-immigration platform. Blocher’s poster has contributed to uncommon riots and other violence in the lead-up to the 21 October general election in the country. “The ultimate message of this cartoon which should be condemned and repudiated by all, as it was with the afore-mentioned campaign poster, is that there can be security in WIPO and Switzerland only when black people are kicked out, since the white sheep kicking Dr. Idris out bears the WIPO logo,” the communiqué said. Idris, who has been DG since 1998, has been mentioned for several years in connection with financial and personnel management problems at WIPO, which ran a deficit three years ago despite being among the top-earning UN institutions in a boom time for intellectual property rights. But no wrongdoing on his part or any of his top advisers has ever been proven, a point his defenders emphasise. But one issue that seems to have stuck with member states and the public is a confidential 2006 internal auditor’s report that WIPO has sought to suppress. That report, which WIPO demanded be removed from the Intellectual Property Watch website earlier this year, details a systematic effort by Idris to misstate his birth date since it was first entered incorrectly as 1945 instead of 1954 before his hiring at WIPO in the early 1980s. The incorrectly recorded birth date put Idris at the same age as two more senior competitors for the position that he subsequently obtained. Idris moved to fix the age in 2006, and his office downplayed it as the correction of a technical error. The African Group defended Idris’ record at WIPO, stating it “wishes it to be noted that WIPO is not only the most audited and supervised organisation in the UN system, but also one of the most successful. It is the only organisation that enjoys surplus in its financial and budgetary management, and registers substantial income annually.” In the 2006-2007 biennium, WIPO’s surplus ran into the tens of millions of Swiss francs despite spending over its budget. The African statement also suggests that the majority of WIPO member states supported Idris at the recent WIPO General Assemblies that collapsed when developed countries held up agreement over the Idris matter. But during the assembly, several participants said many member states who did not outright call for his resignation indicated support for a fair process, but did not take a position on the Idris allegations. The African statement also said Idris oversaw WIPO’s growth from a legal and technical body to a “globally development-oriented structure.” But during the negotiation for a WIPO Development Agenda since 2004, officials repeatedly said the WIPO secretariat was unsupportive to the effort. In fact, Idris and his cabinet were frequently criticised as being too far under the influence of the developed countries, which by virtue of owning most of the world’s intellectual property rights pay most of WIPO’s budget. Many developing country officials have questioned why the United States, Switzerland and other developed countries now are pushing so hard on the Idris’ removal. The sceptics question whether it is related to this year’s adoption of a Development Agenda, the failure to move harmonisation of national patent regimes (a developed country private-sector favourite), or the desire to restore a developed country official at the top of the organisation. US and other developed country officials repeatedly deny all of these suggestions, and insist it is because they were concerned that he may have been involved in wrongdoing and now feel he has lost the ability to govern the organisation. Perhaps the reader comments on Intellectual Property Watch capture the spirit within the organisation best. As one commenter put it: “A great number of WIPO colleagues express today the wish that their organisation would become again as it was before: A place of creativity, enthusiasm for the work, respect and honesty. A new chapter has now to begin, for the benefit of our professional partners, the satisfaction of our member states, the serenity of our host-country, and above all, for the wellbeing and the security of each and every co-worker. A strong decision is requested now. It is not necessary to make a single person endorse all the mistakes made during the past ten years. There has also been a great deal of positive action. Our organisation has grown, and not only in numbers. The staff of this organisation asks that it may be fully entrusted again, expressed by the director general himself.” William New may be reached at email@example.com. 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