By Henry Zakumumpa
Over one hundred human rights NGOs, including some from Uganda, have petitioned the US government to stop a three-day Intellectual property summit set to take place in Cape Town, South Africa in April 2012.
The summit has been called to discuss intellectual property enforcement on the continent and could be a critical meeting.
Campaigners say enforcing trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) translates into banning Indian generic AIDS drugs by enforcing patents for Western pharmaceutical giants, outlawing extensive photocopying of educational materials published by Western multinationals, limiting access to newly developed disease-resistant agricultural seeds for poor farmers and cracking down on counterfeit Microsoft computer programmes, meaning millions of poor Africans will miss out.
TRIPS refers to the exclusive rights held by inventors and innovators of items such as new drugs, books, plant seeds, software developers. These rights are enforced by international law and unlawful access to them attracts penalties. The majority of intellectual property rights are owned by western countries.
The Cape Town summit, Africa Intellectual Property Forum: Intellectual Property, Regional Integration and Economic Growth in Africa is organised by the US Department of Commerce.
It has been billed as the first Africa-wide ministerial-level event of its kind. The summit is jointly organized by World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and several US multinational companies including PfIzer, Dolby,Caterpillar and Microsoft.
The summit has drawn the ire of human rights NGOs in Africa. This is partly due to the disturbing conflict of interesting which the summit’s sponsors – namely US multinationals, in collaboration with Western governments such as the US, France and Japan – are the organizations that own the majority of intellectual property and thereby have a vested interest in enforcing intellectual property rights in African countries despite the fact that the majority of Africans live on less than a dollar a day.
Mulumba Moses of the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development, a Ugandan human rights NGO, said: ”It’s a shame that the Africa IP Forum is putting emphasis on IP enforcement agenda. One would expect the continent to be discussing the development agenda in light of its social economic challenges in the areas of health, education and agriculture. Over emphasis on IP enforcement is iniquitous of the continent’s population that still badly needs to utilise the policy space provided for by the TRIPS Agreement.”
The summit is being castigated by human rights activists because it appears to reverse gains made by African governments in securing exemptions from enforcing the intellectual property rights of multinationals in poor countries. One such gain was the 2006 TRIPS agreement in Doha, which granted poor countries a grace period until 2016 to consume cheap generic AIDS drugs manufactured in India.
It is feared that the summit may trigger new intellectual property legislation in African countries in a compliance move that may curtail access to products, in some cases life-saving drugs such as AIDS or tuberculosis medication.
The irony of the South African government playing host to a summit on African soil which is seeking to perpetuate Western multinational interests by curtailing access to life-saving drugs or educational materials to poor African students is not lost on African and global human rights NGOs.
The sentiments of the petitioning African NGOs are aptly captured by Sangeeta Shasikant, Legal Advisor of the Third World Network: “The US is well known for pressuring developing countries to adopt TRIPS plus standards. The Africa IP Summit is another attempt by the US to advance its aggressive agenda on IP protection and enforcement such as Anti-Counterfeit Agreement (ACTA), which favours the interests of certain powerful multinational companies.
“The US concept paper and programme totally disregards the numerous developmental and socio-economic challenges facing Africa. Issues of access to affordable medicines, access to knowledge, misappropriation of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge and farmers’ rights are totally disregarded.”