An activist’s view from the WTO meeting in Cancun

Mauro Guarinieri, HIV i-Base

Some protesters wanted to be as colourful and disruptive as they were when the World Trade Organisation met in Seattle in 1999, which gave birth to a global protest movement, but attention focused on the WTO’s meeting at Cancun in September for different reasons. The real drama involved the delegates from 147 nations engaged in negotiations aimed at making life fairer for poor countries struggling against a rigged global trading system.

However, there was protest in Cancun. A welcoming speech by Mexican President Vicente Fox was delayed by demonstrators and, just as delegates at the fifth ministerial meeting of the WTO were being welcomed with close attention to protocol, several miles away about 4,000 protesters marched through the town and tried to knock down fences preventing them from entering the meeting area. During the rally 56-year-old Lee Kyang Hae of the Korean Farmer’s Organisation stabbed himself in front of police to draw attention to the grave situation that farmers across the world face because of the liberalisation of commerce.

While Lee was killing himself, holding a placard saying “WTO Kills Farmers”, Rubens Ricupero told delegates that although “the rhetoric of global trade is filled with promises … the reality of the international trading system today does not match them”. He explicitly mentioned in his message “the sick and the dying, whose suffering has been needlessly prolonged by lack of access to affordable medicines”.

Ricupero, speaking to delegates on behalf of UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said that the paragraph six 30 August deal on medicines should be flexibly implemented, so that developing countries can gain access to medicines.

Although medicines were not on the agenda of the ministerial meeting in Cancun, AIDS activists criticised the deal reached by WTO Members on 30 August. Activists pointed to complicated new obligations placed on generic manufacturers and importing and exporting countries, which meant that the “solution” would be difficult if not impossible to implement. These impediments include the requirement for compulsory licences in both importing and exporting countries, the creation of new avenues for bullying countries that try to use the deal, and public and private efforts by the US to exclude countries that may have some manufacturing capacity but don’t have domestic production because they lack economic efficiency.

The WTO’s next step is to create a permanent amendment to TRIPS that would permit countries to obtain exported generic medicines. Activists demanded that the permanent amendment return to the letter and the spirit of the Doha Declaration — which prioritised access to medicines for all — by removing the new conditions imposed by this temporary waiver.

Dr Yusuf Hamied, Chairman and Managing Director of Cipla, the largest supplier of generic AIDS medicines to poor nations, said that the “political compromise” reached by WTO delegates in Geneva was “an invitation to disaster”. He added: “The decision is a certain death sentence for millions of people… It creates new bureaucratic hurdles that did not exist before this decision. It will discourage companies from seeking to supply these life saving medicines.”

The good news is that the developing countries resisted pressure from the United States, the European Union, Japan and other developed economies to limit the agreement to a few diseases and extraordinary circumstances. The bad news is that the WTO has already started to undermine its own agreement, forcing Cambodia into major concessions on generic AIDS drugs as part of its WTO joining package.

According to two Cambodian Charities, Cambodia had been forced to stop using generic drugs immediately and implement TRIPS by 2007 rather than delay it to 2016 as least developed countries (LDCs) are allowed to do under the terms of the WTO’s 2001 “Doha Declaration”. “This is another example of double standards and hypocrisy,” said country representative Mike Bird. “It is apparent that Cambodia’s accession treaty will go beyond what was negotiated by LDCs in Doha, particularly in the area of intellectual property.” At the same time the US already started telling the Philippines and other countries that they will oppose “economic efficiency” as grounds for allowing a country to import generics, a position that clearly contradicts the same principles of the WTO and free-trade.

Mauro Guarinieri is Chair of the European AIDS Treatment Group

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