Glaister: U.S. sets stage for WTO protest

Brian Glaister

In this globalized era, rules on international trade are more necessary than ever. So in 1995, a large group of nations got together and founded the World Trade Organization to govern all aspects of international trade. One of these aspects is the issue of patents and intellectual property, so the WTO signed an agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights. The original TRIPS agreement granted industries a 20-year period of patent exclusivity on all new innovations. It also granted nations the right to issue compulsory licenses to produce generic pharmaceutical products in the event of a public health crisis. The original agreement overlooked the fact that developing nations, the most likely to need generic drugs to combat crises, lack the infrastructure to produce generic medicines.

To correct this oversight, the trade ministers of the 144 countries represented in the WTO traveled to Doha, Qatar in November 2001 to discuss possible changes to the TRIPS agreement. At the end of the meeting, all 144 ministers signed an agreement that has become known as the Doha Declaration to allow WTO members to import drugs from countries with pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities to ensure the public health. The ministers left Doha and agreed that by November 2002 they would have an amendment to the TRIPS agreement written into WTO law.

When U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick returned from Doha, he found himself under immense pressure from pharmaceutical industry to limit compulsory licenses to three diseases, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. By giving an estimated $85 million in contributions in the latest congressional campaign, mostly to republican candidates, and through extensive lobbying through a pharmaceutical lobbying group, the industry caught the attention of Congress and the Bush administration. Consequently, both the Bush administration and many prominent members of Congress have instructed Zoellick to uphold the industry’s demands at the WTO.

So it was no surprise that last November, after 143 trade ministers voted for an agreement that included generic production of medicines for a broad range of diseases and nations, Zoellick cast the only nay vote. Since the WTO operates on the basis of consensus, Zoellick’s vote effectively vetoed the agreement and sent the ministers back to the drawing board. No real progress is expected before the next full meeting of the WTO this September in Cancun, Mexico, where many are expecting protests and riots from activists at a scale similar to that of the last WTO meeting in Seattle.

This stubborn adherence to the interests of the pharmaceutical industry by Zoellick has been the source of major frustrations for activists and aid organizations. Furthermore, it is seen as an insult to the millions of people across the world suffering and dying of treatable, preventable diseases that an industry’s profits are worth more than their lives. If we are going to eradicate poverty from the planet, we have to allow countries to treat their sick and dying. Zoellick and the pharmaceutical industry, by limiting the scope of the Doha Declaration, have locked the door to sustainable development that would end the plight of millions.