International law must protect indigenous rights - UN University report

19 February 2004

Existing international rules about protecting intellectual property rights are an affront to the customs of many indigenous peoples and need to be revamped, according to a new report by the Tokyo-based United Nations University (UNU).

Under the current system, officials require free access to indigenous secrets in order to decide whether a new product seeking patent protection is based on traditional knowledge. In many indigenous cultures, however, traditional knowledge is highly guarded, the UNU study notes.

Obliging indigenous people to offer public documentation for intellectual property protection purposes is insensitive to centuries-old cultural practice in many places and may lead to injustice, the report warns.

"The challenge for the world community is to devise a process to prevent the piracy of traditional knowledge without jeopardizing the cultural integrity and ways of indigenous peoples," said Brendan Tobin, who wrote the report, which was issued in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at a meeting of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Among its recommendations, the study proposes limiting access to confidential databases on traditional knowledge. National governments and international organizations are called on to review existing policies related to traditional knowledge. Companies should be required to demonstrate prior informed consent as a condition for commercial use of this knowledge.

"We must learn the lessons of previous resource exploitation ventures, many of which produced significant wealth for some but little or no lasting benefit to the local population and the area in which those resources were found," said UNU Rector Hans van Ginkel.


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