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Technology for Tyrants

Courtesy of the U.N.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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It's well over a year since the United Nations intellectual property agency got caught undermining the U.N.’s own sanctions—shipping U.S.-origin computers and related high-tech equipment to North Korea and Iran. In classic U.N. fashion, the World Intellectual Property Organization, known as WIPO, stiffed congressional inquiries and arranged its own narrow and “independent” investigation of itself. Thanks to U.N. privileges and immunities, WIPO was ultimately judged by the U.N. to have stayed within the letter, if not the spirit, of U.N. sanctions. WIPO’s director general, Francis Gurry, maintained that WIPO had done nothing wrong, but decreed that to dispel any lingering doubt, WIPO would stop sending high-tech hardware to any of its 186 member states.

Francis Gurry, director general of WIPO

Francis Gurry, director general of WIPO


That has not, however, marked the end of WIPO’s cozy ties to Iran and North Korea. Both these rogue states have learned to exploit this U.N. agency in ways that may not break U.N. rules, but do suggest the organization needs far better management. Based in Geneva, WIPO operates largely off the radar of the U.S. press, but it handles sensitive information and serves an important role as the global clearinghouse for international patent applications and other forms of intellectual property rights.

Gurry, an Australian, is now running for reelection as WIPO director general against three rival candidates—from Panama, Estonia, and Nigeria—with the vote due next spring. There are worries in Congress that his reelection would be a disaster. In September, five lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, noting that Gurry had refused to allow WIPO staffers to testify in a bipartisan investigation into the computer shipments to North Korea and Iran, an “activity that would have put any U.S. citizen behind bars.” They accused Gurry of “erratic and secretive behavior and colossal lack of judgment.” In November, 12 lawmakers sent another letter to Kerry, alleging that “the situation at WIPO has substantially deteriorated.”

That may be a generous assessment, given that WIPO’s problems extend to areas Congress may not even be tracking. For starters, while Iran may no longer be receiving free computers from WIPO, Iran has insinuated itself into the organization’s budgeting and oversight process. Since at least 2011, Iran has held one of the 53 seats on WIPO’s program and budget committee, a post to which it was unanimously reelected this October for another two-year term. Thanks to its seat on the budget committee, Iran was chosen last year to chair a special panel tasked with vetting candidates for three of the seven seats on WIPO’s independent advisory oversight committee, the body of outside experts entrusted with helping member states oversee WIPO.

This Iran-chaired panel was set up in September 2012, while WIPO was both denying any wrongdoing in the tech for tyrants scandal and promising to behave better. Iran’s chairmanship was the choice of WIPO member states, not of Gurry. But there is no sign that either Gurry or, for that matter, the State Department made any move to protest this development. The Iran-chaired panel went quietly to work, and WIPO General Assembly records show that this October Iran’s ambassador, Abbas Bagherpour, was pleased to present a list of six candidates, culled under his leadership from a field of 160 applicants, for the job of ensuring WIPO’s integrity.

As far as Gurry’s direct responsibilities, there is also the curious and apparently unexplored matter of the Iranian and North Korean nationals working under him on WIPO’s staff. The numbers look trivial, but some of the activities do not. Among a staff of more than 1,200, based mostly in Geneva, WIPO employs both an Iranian and a North Korean whose names turn up, respectively, in connection with the computer shipments to Iran and North Korea.

Apart from the most senior staff, WIPO’s press office treats all details of individual staffers as secret, including their names, jobs, and nationalities. But information can be gleaned from WIPO’s terse public notes on technical assistance missions and conferences, plus interviews, a confidential WIPO staff list seen by this reporter, and WIPO in-house correspondence published last year by Fox News executive editor George Russell, who in April 2012 broke the WIPO tech for tyrants story.

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