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U.S. Efforts to Address World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Technical Assistance Projects

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Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Washington, DC
August 13, 2012


Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs

The United States views our leadership at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as critical to protecting worldwide the intellectual property of U.S. companies and patent holders. The more than 48,000 patent applications filed last year under the WIPO-administered global IP treaty framework – including from top U.S. technology and other industries, and dozens of premier U.S. universities – made up more than 27 percent of all patent applications worldwide.

So it is precisely because we know how important WIPO is to these thousands of U.S. businesses, institutions, and individuals that the United States has strongly pushed WIPO to take corrective measures since we learned earlier this year that WIPO had provided technical assistance projects to North Korea and Iran. Given that the United States had led the efforts in the UN Security Council to impose the toughest global sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea, in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, we were troubled to discover that these projects had been carried out without the knowledge of Member States or the relevant UN Sanctions Committees.

The Administration shares the concerns raised by Members of Congress and others regarding WIPO technical assistance projects in North Korea and Iran, two countries that have a history of flouting their international obligations. Providing technical assistance to North Korea and Iran without the knowledge of Member States and the relevant UN Security Council sanctions committees is a very serious matter. Since we learned about the North Korea project in March, we have focused on improving oversight, transparency, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that Member States and UN Security Council sanctions committees are properly consulted in the future before these types of projects are approved.

There are three areas of concern at WIPO that need to be addressed: what happened, how to correct it, and how to prevent it in the future. These areas are critical to ensuring American interests are protected and advanced at WIPO and across the UN system, which is a top priority for the Administration.

On March 14, 2012, we first learned about a WIPO technical assistance project to North Korea, and immediately inquired into WIPO projects in other countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions. As part of that inquiry, on May 9, we uncovered a similar project involving Iran. In response, the State Department, in collaboration with our Mission in Geneva and the Department of Commerce, reviewed documents provided by WIPO to determine exactly what had transpired. We have received some answers, but still have many questions.

According to WIPO, the main items provided to North Korea and Iran by WIPO were servers, computers, printers, scanners, firewalls, power supplies, and software. The projects in North Korea cost approximately $118,000, and were designed to upgrade database systems in North Korea’s Invention Office to support more users and more content, as well as upgrade the printing facilities to enable in-house printing of official publications. The projects in the Iranian Industrial Property Office cost approximately $80,000, and were designed to update standard computing equipment in advance of receiving WIPO’s proprietary software, which is used by IP offices worldwide to administer intellectual property programs coherently with the international community.

Both projects were in line with other technical assistance projects that WIPO has provided to developing countries since the program began in the1990s. More than 80 countries received similar technical assistance from WIPO in 2011 alone. But because these projects assisted North Korea and Iran, the United States began a review of whether they violated UN Security Council sanctions. Based on the information we have received so far, we believe that the projects did not violate UN Security Council sanctions.

We based this view on an analysis of the items transferred, circumstances of the transfer, and a review of potentially relevant provisions of UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran and North Korea. With respect to these items, we note that the UN sanctions imposed on Iran and North Korea are highly targeted and focused on containing the risks posed by the nuclear and ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea. Both sanctions regimes principally prohibit the transfers of specified items and technologies that are directly relevant to the nuclear and ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea. They do not explicitly prohibit all transfers of computer equipment, particularly the kind of readily-available items that WIPO transferred.

Based on the information we have received so far, the WIPO-transferred items are not found on any of the UN Security Council sanctions control lists. Furthermore, although UN Security Council sanctions on Iran additionally prohibit the transfer of “any further items that a State determines could contribute” to Iran’s nuclear-related or ballistic missile activities, based on the information we have received so far, in line with well-established U.S. practice and interpretation of UN Security Council resolutions, we do not consider the transfer to have violated this “catchall” provision.

Even though we do not believe these projects violated UN Security Council sanctions, we nevertheless were very concerned that WIPO had not done more prior due diligence and shown more transparency to ensure that all activities were carried out consistent with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and with the support of WIPO Member States. The United States, therefore, pressed for WIPO to take a number of steps. As a result, WIPO has informed the relevant sanctions committees of the UN Security Council of its projects, and requested the Committees’ views on the projects’ consistency with UN Security Council sanctions.

Furthermore, WIPO Director General Gurry has confirmed that he has commissioned an independent external inquiry and review of the North Korea and Iran projects, led by the prominent Swedish police official Stig Edvqvist. Edvqvist, who has more than thirty years of law enforcement experience including leading the investigation into the assassination of former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, has been charged with determining whether the WIPO projects in North Korea and Iran were in line with the program and budget that was approved by WIPO Member States and with recommending additional rules and procedures for WIPO projects in countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions. Director General Gurry has committed WIPO to provide full cooperation with Edvqvist’s inquiry, including unhindered access to all pertinent WIPO documents, data, and employees.

Over the past few years, the United States has been a leader in pushing for increasing transparency and oversight across the UN system, and WIPO will be no exception. WIPO has agreed to take additional steps to increase transparency and oversight in the consideration of future development projects.

Director General Gurry also has pledged to end the provision of hardware and commercially-licensed software. Instead, WIPO technical assistance in the future will be focused on training and the provision of WIPO’s proprietary software for administering international patent regulations. For past projects in North Korea and Iran involving the provision of technology or non-proprietary software, WIPO now will conduct end-use verifications, to ensure that the equipment is being used for the purposes for which it was intended. Going forward, WIPO also will submit for review by the relevant UN Security Council sanctions committee any proposed projects in countries targeted by UN Security Council sanctions for their conduct.

The United States supports these initial proposals. But we also will continue to work with Director General Gurry and other WIPO Member States to develop comprehensive and durable new safeguards to create greater transparency and oversight at WIPO in the months and years to come. Currently, the details of specific projects in individual countries typically are not identified to other WIPO Member States in advance, but are reported annually. We are pushing to institute monthly reviews of these projects by WIPO’s internal audit committee, and quarterly reports to WIPO Member States by the external auditor’s office.

This is especially important for any technical assistance proposals for countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions for their conduct. Ostensibly, projects like these help developing countries improve their ability to submit patent applications and enforce international protections for intellectual property. However, WIPO’s finite technical assistance funds clearly would be far better spent on other developing countries.

As with so many pieces of the multilateral system, WIPO plays an important role in our increasingly-interconnected world. But for it to undertake its important functions effectively, WIPO needs to ensure that it maintains the confidence of its Member States. Since the United States learned of these WIPO projects, we have pressed WIPO to take steps that not only will fully investigate these projects of concern, but also will establish safeguards and procedures to prevent similar projects in the future from going forward in the absence of sufficient oversight by the United States and other WIPO Member States.

Although the discovery of these recent projects in North Korea and Iran seriously concern us, the steps that WIPO has taken and has pledged to take at the urging of the United States and other likeminded countries will help restore U.S. confidence in this important organization. The United States strongly supports the benefits WIPO brings to Americans, and we will continue to show leadership in pushing to ensure that WIPO fulfills its mission to enhance prosperity by protecting intellectual property worldwide.

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