Will the WTO Step Up?

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After almost two years, it looks like the World Trade Organization might actually come to a decision on whether to allow poor countries to import life-saving generic versions of expensive patented drugs. The negotiations will begin this week with a series of multi-lateral meetings before trade ministers gather for the organization’s meeting in Cancun on September 10-11.

The decision is of desperate importanced for countries that cannot afford expensive patented drugs and produce generic drugs. Under current WTO rules Brazil, China, India, South Korea and a few other developing countries are allowed to produce generic versions of patented drugs, but can’t t sell them to other needy nations. If the change is accepted, needy countries would be allowed to import generic drugs without seeking the permission of the patent holder. The imports would be strictly capped — just enough exporting to cover health needs. Still, the change could be key in treating diseases such as AIDS and malaria.

Understandably, the main proponents of the rule change are officials from the AIDS-ravaged nations of Africa. Keith Rockwell, a WTO spokesman told the Associated Press, “Every single African state is pleading and urging their colleagues to adopt this.”

But is the rule-change really everything it could be? While many proponents of changing the generic drug laws are excited about the direction of the proposal, some are dissatisfied with the specifics. Celine Charveriat, of the British aid group, Oxfam, told The New York Times that the proposal is “largely cosmetic “[The proposal] will not make a significant difference to the millions of sick people who die unnecessarily in the third world every year,” she said.

But after years of waiting for closure on the issue, many WTO members are anxious for a decision. The WTO is under tremendous pressure to come to a decision on farm subsidies at the Cancun meeting, and having the drug decision behind them will ease the load for the attending trade ministers, thus allowing more space for discussing the needs of developing nations’ farmers.

The Cancun meeting promises to be trying whether or not the WTO rules on generic drugs next week. After the “Battle of Seattle” precedent in 1999, many have become skeptical of the WTO’s ability to meet the needs of developing countries. While activists prepare to converge in Cancun, others are already predicting a disappointing meeting. Joseph Stiglitz writes in London’s Guardian that the meeting might fail to address the world’s developing nations.

“One would have thought that the developing countries would look forward to the meeting as a chance to achieve a fairer global trading system. Instead, many fear that what has happened in the past will happen again: secret negotiations, arm twisting, and the display of brute economic power by the US and Europe aimed at ensuring that the interests of the rich are protected.

While some progress has been made in making the negotiations more open and transparent, efforts to go further have met with resistance, and for good reason: unbalanced processes help ensure unbalanced outcomes. Ironically, the World Trade Organisation, where each country has one vote, might seem far more ‘democratic’ than, say, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) where a single country, the US, has a veto. Yet the realpolitik of economic power has ensured that the interests of the developed countries predominate.”


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