Congress sets sights on WIPO over whistleblower allegations 25 Feb 16
In a hearing held yesterday afternoon by several sub-committees of the US Congress, a series of allegations about WIPO accountability and the mistreatment of staff and whistleblowers by Director General Francis Gurry were dramatically laid bare. At the heart of the discussion is a still-unpublished United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) report into accusations levelled at Gurry.
On World Trademark Review we have previously reported on calls for the official publication of independent investigations into claims made about the conduct of WIPO’s current leader. In April 2014, James Pooley, previously a deputy director general of the UN body, alleged that Gurry had violated 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. He also alleged that Gurry improperly used his influence in a procurement procedure to benefit an Australian acquaintance. Just under a year ago, when we last reported on the allegations, there had been seemingly not been an official and independent investigation of the allegations. Fast forward 12 months and the momentum is building.
Our sister title, IAM, this week pointed to news stories from several sources stating that a report into the claims undertaken by the OIOS has been completed and submitted to Gabriel Duque, the chair of WIPO’s General Assemblies. At yesterday’s, joint session of the Congressional sub-committees Pooley was among the witnesses. Also appearing was Miranda Brown, former strategic adviser to the WIPO director general, and Matthew Parish, founder and managing director of the Gentium Law Group.
In his testimony, Pooley pointed to a “profoundly serious problem with governance” at WIPO, criticising the lack of effective oversight over the director general’s role. He focused specifically on three allegations: the “gift of powerful computer equipment to North Korea”, “secret agreements with Russia and China to open satellite WIPO offices” and “retaliation against whistleblowers”. Pooley called for the creation of an independent board to oversee the executive at WIPO, the establishment of a meaningful procedure to receive and investigate complaints of wrongdoing by agency executives, and for a UN-wide requirement that whistleblower retaliation complaints be subject to external investigation.
Following Pooley, Brown expanded on the allegations and gave her perspective as one of the ‘whistleblowers’. She explained that she had flagged up concerns over WIPO’s shipment of computers to North Korea based on a “responsibility, as a UN staff member, to blow the whistle and report a UN agency that was supplying high-end American IT equipment to North Korea, in violation of US domestic sanctions and without consulting the UN Security Council Sanctions Committees”. As a result, she alleged that she was subject to “severe” retaliation from Gurry and after a period of leave due to stress, in what she argued was a test of her loyalty, was assigned to work on “another secret project, to establish WIPO external satellite offices, including in Beijing and Moscow, without the approval of the Member States”. She subsequently “resigned under duress and took a lower level position in another UN organisation”.
The third witness, Parish (who serves as legal counsel to the staff council of WIPO, and told the hearing that “it is not an exaggeration that members of the staff counsel live in fear of losing their jobs and careers” if they speak out), called for the release of the OIOS report, reasoning that “the old adage that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ is appropriate for the issues surrounding WIPO”. Congress is well-positioned to help generate the release of the report, he said, and to provide greater transparency and accountability. “Many hardworking men and women who comprise the Staff Council would like nothing more than to continue to immerse themselves in the intellectual property matters that are in WIPO’s purview”, Parish continued, “rather than have to sit in fear of reprisals”. Pooley added his support to this call, stating: “Try as hard as I have, I have not been able to find out who has the report or what it says”.
Parish’s comments about WIPO’s work are important to bear in mind. The activities that the agency undertakes are fundamentally important and it would be a shame if that fact gets lost amongst sensationalist headlines. However, the criticism of the organisation, specifically related to the conduct of Gurry, is now the subject of Congressional hearings and this undoubtedly threatens to overshadow this good work if allowed to rumble on. It is therefore a shame that Gurry’s voice was missing from the hearing (New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith noted that they did invite Gurry to participate and stated that the invitation was open-ended – he is welcome to make his case and refute the allegations at any time).
A WIPO spokesperson told World Trademark Review last year that “Mr Gurry has already stated publicly that the allegations are without foundation and has no further comment”. Additionally, as noted on IAM, an independent investigation, while critical of some actions taken, cleared WIPO of any wrongdoing relating to the technical assistance provided to North Korea and Iran.
In light of this impasse, the unpublished OIOS report is all important. It has been completed and circulated amongst certain parties, and witnesses and congressmen at yesterday’s hearing expressed frustration that it has not been made available. As Parish stated, if it exonerates Gurry, then it is it is fair and proper that it be circulated and released “so that his reputation, currently sullied under the weight of accusations about which no final institutional determination has been published, might be cleared”. Alternatively, if the report is more negative, Gurry will then be in a position to directly respond.
World Trademark Review has no insight into the validity of the allegations. However, with these now the subject of house hearings (with one congressman labelling WIPO as “the FIFA of UN agencies”) and the investigation into the charges seemingly complete, it is in the interests of Gurry, WIPO and the wider intellectual property community that the report is transparently published and addressed, with all sides afforded the opportunity to provide their perspectives. From there, WIPO will be able to generate headlines for the right reasons - namely the positive contribution it continues to make to the IP eco-system.
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