Trevor Little

Speaking at the opening of today’s WIPO Assemblies, WIPO director-general Francis Gurry outlined the organisation’s strong financial health and pledged to continue to build on the successes achieved over the past six years in its core programmes, namely global IP services, policy-making, capacity building and technical infrastructure. At the same time there are calls for official publication of two independent investigations into allegations against the serving director-general and disagreement over the firing of a WIPO staff member.

In May we reported on growing pressure for a full investigation of accusations of improper conduct levelled at Gurry by James Pooley, a deputy director general of the UN body. Among other things, Gurry was accused by Pooley of violating the human rights of WIPO employees whose DNA is said to have been collected without their permission and of suppressing evidence that this had occurred. Gurry dismissed the charges as being without foundation.

Following Gurry’s re-election as director-general, a member of the South Korean delegation made a speech to the assembly asking for a transparent and independent investigation of the issues raised by Pooley. While things have seemed relatively quiet since then, behind the scenes the issue hasn’t gone away.

On September 5 Moncef Kateb, president of the WIPO Staff Association, was suspended from his WIPO staff position over allegations that he improperly used confidential information pertaining to two colleagues' disciplinary cases to defend them at a WIPO appeals board hearing. On Friday, a press release issued by Flaherty Law Group announced that Kateb has been fired from his position and alleged that the move was in “retaliation for his defence of staff and continued opposition to alleged misconduct by the WIPO director general and his administration”, and that he had “been subject to numerous threats and disciplinary measures from WIPO administration during his four-year term as president of the staff union due to his efforts to protect staff from intimidation and unethical treatment”.

On the same day as the press release (but commenting on the previous suspension), three staff federations of the UN Common System published a letter alleging that he was removed over fears that he would use his speaking slot at this week’s assemblies to “continue raising inconvenient questions on Mr Gurry's style of leadership”. Writing on Intellectual Property Watch, William New reports that the three federations have called an extraordinary assembly of WIPO staff for later today, offering masks for those participants who wish to remain anonymous. 

While personnel matters are treated as confidential, a WIPO spokesperson told World Trademark Review: “WIPO fully respects the important work done by the Staff Association for the benefit and interest of all staff.  The WIPO Administration regrets that the disciplinary action taken with respect to a staff member – in full accordance with the WIPO Staff Regulations and Rules – has been misconstrued by some staff associations as an attack on staff’s right of association. This is not correct. The action was taken in relation to his capacity as an individual staff member of WIPO, and not as president of the Staff Council. The staff member has been afforded all his rights to due process. The right of association has always been, and will continue to be, valued and respected by WIPO. The administration looks forward to continued collaboration with the WIPO Staff Association, and welcomes dialogue through proper channels of communication with any staff association of sister organisations who may have concerns.”

Where the Pooley and Kateb narratives intersect relate to previous allegations that WIPO had breached UN sanctions by sending sophisticated computer equipment to North Korea and Iran. As we wrote in May, there was speculation that Pooley’s allegations against Gurry reflected disquiet in the US about technical assistance supplied by WIPO to the two countries. Kateb, meanwhile, had blown the whistle on the shipment of equipment to North Korea.

While the organisation was criticised for providing computer equipment to both countries in apparent violation of UN-imposed sanctions, an independent report found no evidence of deliberate wrong-doing. However, Pooley’s subsequent allegations have yet to be given an independent public airing.

Following rumours that two “independent investigations into allegations against the serving director-general mandated by WIPO’s Independent Advisory Oversight Committee” have been completed, Intellectual Property Watch today reports that Estonian Ambassador Jüri Seilenthal is calling for these to be sent to all member states, noting that “having clarity amongst member states of WIPO on these very specific issues will help us all put this very difficult time in WIPO governance behind us”.

If the independent investigations have indeed been concluded, then their release would put an end to the speculation about the findings (Seilenthal noting that rumours of the results “vary widely”) and allow WIPO to point to the results of a transparent and independent investigation. Crucially, it would allow the agency to put these allegations behind it and get on with building on its successes, as Gurry envisions.

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