The past few weeks have been busy for delegations from around the world preparing to attend the World Trade Organization (WTO) TRIPS Council Meeting (hosted in Geneva from June 11 to 12). It has been particularly frantic for member countries categorized as least developed countries (LDCs), a category to which Uganda belongs.
As a cursory background on the issue, the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement essentially stipulates that countries must implement certain standards of patent protection, copyrights, trademarks, and other forms of intellectual property. Thus, the agreement seeks to protect and enforce intellectual property rights on a global level. However, there is a provision for flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement for member countries that are LDCs. The flexibilities provide these countries with a renewable exemption from TRIPS obligations. With such exemptions, LDCs are given policy space to overcome capacity constraints in the hopes that they will be able to develop a viable technological and legal base and then start enforcing TRIPS when they have the resources to do so.
Where the problematic issue arises is that the period of the last extension granted to LDCs is set to expire on July 1st, 2013 and certain WTO members have expressed resistance at granting a further extension of anything longer than 5 to 7 years for LDCs. LDCs, with the support of other countries, have opposed this position and are lobbying for more time so that they can overcome the constraints that prevent them from creating a viable technological base and enforcing IP laws.
CEHURD’s role in this issue has been formative in spearheading a movement to lobby the appropriate actors on behalf of civil society to grant LDCs an extension. Last week, CEHURD celebrated a few successes in its fight for an extension on the TRIPS deadline. First, CEHURD along with the Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) successfully petitioned the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) to pass a resolution urging WTO member countries to grant a TRIPS extension for LDCs. Then, before the TRIPS Council meeting even convened, the WTO announced that an 8 year extension for LDCs had been granted; a marginal victory for LDCs, but a victory nonetheless.
So, what are the implications of these issues on human rights? Well, intellectual property law, in general, is at an interesting juncture with respect to the right to health. Access to medicine issues are particularly pronounced in developing countries, like Uganda, where there is a high disease burden but limited financial resources to address that burden.
Many LDCs, including Uganda, where HIV and TB are rampant, rely on the importation of generic medicines to meet the health needs of their population. Intellectual property laws can end up acting as a regulator and restrict the importation of generic medicines into these countries, which is why Uganda and its fellow LDCs rely on TRIPS flexibilities. LDCs, the poorest countries in the world, are protected from opening their weak economies to monopoly protections for IP-based multinational corporations. Without those flexibilities, strict IP laws can inhibit the wide dissemination of generic medicines to populations that need them the most. Even more broadly, such IP laws may render many essential public goods including educational resources and green technologies unaffordable.
This whirlwind of issues has elucidated to me just how complex human rights issues can get, especially when issues of trade, intellectual property, and health are factored in. On the one hand, there are apparent human rights issues that need to be addressed if an individual cannot access potentially lifesaving antiretroviral therapies to manage their HIV as a result of overly stringent IP laws. On the other hand, the right of pharmaceutical companies to enforce their patents in order to thrive is also a concern that needs to be acknowledged. Policy and advocacy work tends to recognize the range of these issues and address them by concurrently lobbying the government for policy reform and also eliciting support from other facets of civil society.
Despite the fact that the extension on TRIPS flexibilities has been granted, the battle is hardly over. Rather, the real heavy lifting is about to start revving up. Uganda, along with its LDC counterparts, must continue to create the necessary legal infrastructure around intellectual property law and accelerate the process of overcoming capacity constraints by establishing a sound and viable technological base.
There is never a dull day at CEHURD’s human rights advocacy department. With the conclusion of the TRIPS Council meeting, the CEHURD team is already wading through the field for its next hot-button issue.