A few months ago, the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization came under fire in some quarters for approving the transfer of some ICT equipment to North Korea and Iran.  Both countries are under strict sanctions by the Security Council, and some raised questions about whether or not the transfers violated sanctions.

A UN agency breaking sanctions imposed by the Security Council would be a very big deal, to say the least, and also embarrassing for the agency and perhaps the UN as a whole.

Because of these sensitivities, prior to the deal WIPO’s in-house counsel concluded prior to the deal that the transfers did not violate UN sanctions. Still, members of Congress and others in the United States raised concerns about this issue so the State Department looked into the matter. It agreed that these transfers did not violate sanctions.

Still, to dispel any lingering questions WIPO announced yesterday that it has appointed two outside independent experts to investigate the matter.  These include a top Swedish law enforcement official Stig Edqvist and John P Barker, a lawyer and former top official in the State Department office that deals with foreign sanctions and non-proliferation.

From WIPO: 

“The inquiry will review the nature and extent of activities related to the said countries and will report on the conformity of those activities with the program and budget of the organization (approved by member states) and on the compliance with UN sanctions regimes. The inquiry is fully independent, and is operating within the terms of WIPO’s Internal Oversight Charter (as approved by member states), which guarantees unrestricted access to all WIPO records and personnel and confidentiality and protection from reprisals against staff. Mr. Edqvist and Mr. Barker are expected to complete their work and submit a report on their findings by September 10, 2012. The report will be made available in full to WIPO’s member states.”

This is a good example of a UN agency taking questions of potential impropriety seriously. Even though its own in-house counsel and the US State Department do not believe these transfers were illegal, it is nonetheless important to fully investigate the matter.  The reputation of WIPO is potentially at stake–and even though it may be a lesser-known UN agency, WIPO serves an important role to help protect patents and support innovation around the world.

US businesses have particularly benefited from WIPO’s copyright protection processes, so it is certainly in America’s interests to make sure that WIPO is as strong and capable as can be. Those who have been critical of WIPO over this episode should support this kind of oversight and investigation.

Discussion

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