New Tactic Used to Prod Intergovernmental Plant Body

7 January 2014

By Toby McIntosh

A new strategy to contest the opacity of an international organization emerging this year, a watchdog group obtained undisclosed documents through a national access to information law and posted them online.

The impact of this technique remains to be seen.

The goal is to prod the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).

Despite some movement toward more transparency in recent years, the organization still denies access to the documents being considered by a key decision-making body, the Consultative Committee. Only the member government representatives have the necessary password.

Twice a year the gateway Consultative Committee prepares recommendations for the Council, composed of all members, that makes final decisions at an annual meeting. It was documents for the October Consultative Committee meeting that were disclosed.

UPOV is an intergovernmental organization with headquarters in Geneva whose mission is “to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants, for the benefit of society.”

Though legally separate, UPOV is related to the World Intellectual Property Organization. WIPO’s Director-General serves as Secretary-General of the UPOV with the power to approve the appointment of UPOV’s Vice Secretary-General.

Disclosure Policy Liberalized in 2012

UPOV probably the shortest access policy around — just three paragraphs.

The policy was liberalized Nov. 2, 2012, to permit access to documents about the deliberations of most UPOV bodies, including the Council, and committees and working groups.

As a result, “meeting documents” for subgroups such as the “Technical Working Party for Ornamental Plants and Forest Trees” are posted on the UPOV website. A calendar of meetings is also available. Clicking on the names of the subgroups brings up a list of materials and links to them, sometimes in multiple languages.

Clicks on “Consultative Committee,” however, prompt a request for a user name and password. This is also true for a website entry labeled “Restricted Area.”

A UPOV official said that requests for documents can be submitted by e-mail (upov.mail@upov.int).

Undisclosed Materials Posted

In advance of a meeting this October, the Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES), a group which for years has urged greater UPOV Transparency, posted the restricted Council “meeting documents” on its internet site here. (Also see article in IP Watch.)

The association did not indicate how it obtained the documents, except that it used a national FOI law to get them.

Members include the Berne Declaration (Switzerland), the Center for International Environmental Law (United States), the Community Technology Development Trust (Zimbabwe), the Development Fund (Norway), the Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (Nepal), the Southeast Asia Regional Initiative for Community Empowerment (Philippines), and the Third World Network (Malaysia).

Observer Status Limited

A related controversy surrounds UPOVs limits on who may observe UPOV meetings.

UPOV liberalized its standards on observer status is late 2012, but remains too strict, according to NGO critics.

The history according to APBREBES:

For half a century, UPOV was governed by a closed circle, excluding important stakeholders and keeping documents in a restricted area only accessible to delegates and a few observers. When APBREBES and the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) asked for observer status in 2009, UPOV first rejected their participation for political reasons. After interventions by the Governments of Norway and Switzerland the observer status of APBREBES and ECVC has been finally accepted in 2010.

Since then, the UPOV Council on Nov. 1, 2012, adopted new rules on who can observe UPOV meetings, but APBREBES said the amendments unduly restrict the participation of NGOs and farmer communities in UPOV meetings.

“APBREBES had hoped that a revision of the rules would lead to new rules which are more consistent with international principles of good governance, including transparency and participation,” said François Meienberg from Berne Declaration, one of the founding members of APBREBES, according to a press release. “On the contrary, these rules make UPOV less inclusive. This is both surprising and disappointing.” “The new rules are in sharp contrast to practices in other international bodies,” the NGO said, having conducted a comparative study of other bodies,

Among other problems is that the rule says that if an NGO has “different coordination entities” observer status will be granted to “only one coordination per organization.”

“This strange article is not found in the rules of any other international organization,” APBREBES said. “It is clearly aimed at targeting farmer groups such as La Via Campesina which has `regional coordination entities’ as part of its structure.” One consequence is that the European Coordination of La Via Campesina (ECVC) has observer status at UPOV, but not its affiliated Latin American Coordination of Countryside Organizations (CLOC-Via Campesina). “This new rule is most of all a bad sign, with more impact on the reputation of UPOV then on observers. It sends the message that the views of vulnerable farmers are neglected by UPOV,” said Sangeeta Shashikant, president of APBREBES, when the rule was issued. The group reported that Bolivia has raised concerns about the rule.

By contrast, APBREBES said, the seed industry is well represented by industry associations. “Syngenta for example is represented in UPOV by CropLife, the International Seed Federation, the European Seed Association, CIAPORA, the African Seed and Trade Association and the Asian and Pacific Seed Association,” according to APBREBES. “It seems that this current multiple representation of multinational seed companies does not pose any problem to UPOV, but the small and only potential possibility of a double representation of a farmer organization has inspired UPOV to adopt a new rule to prevent this.”

There are 24 accredited observers as of Dec. 4, according to the UPOV website. Also listed as observers are 17 international organizations, such from the African Intellectual Property Association to the World Trade Organization.

Defending Space to Deliberate

The policy of closed meetings was defended as necessary by UPOV leaders, as reported by Catherine Saez of Intellectual Property Watch in October of 2012.

“In most organisations, there are provisions for the members to be able to have discussions among themselves,” UPOV Vice Secretary Peter Button told Saez in an interview.

Limitations on access to draft documents, he said, were necessary “to avoid confusion of general readers.”

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Filed under: IFTI Watch

ABOUT IFTI WATCH

In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
1-(703) 276-7748