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The East African Community has thrown its weight behind a campaign to insulate poor countries from stringent international intellectual property laws.
The East African Community has thrown its weight behind a campaign to insulate poor countries from stringent international intellectual property laws.

During their seating in Kampala earlier this week, the East African Legislative Assembly resolved to support the extension of the grace period within which developing countries implement the trade related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement.

The agreement protects intellectual property which was adopted by World Trade Organisation members in 1995.  It requires states to implement laws that protect intellectual property of fellow members.

A deadline of 2005 was imposed on all members to comply.

However, upon appeals, the deadline for least developed countries was extended by seven years and expires on June 30.

The East African assembly said it was supporting a formal request by Haiti on behalf of least developed countries last year calling for the extension of the transition period.
Haiti wants the grace period extended to poor countries on the implementation of property rights agreement to remain in effect.

Kenya, unlike its fellow East African partner states, is no longer considered a least developed country.

The country has been pursuing compliance with intellectual property agreement since it passed the Industrial Property Act in 2002.

But Mr Sylvance Sange, deputy managing director of technical services at the Kenya Industrial Property Institute, says that Kenya still stands to gain from exemptions granted to other community states despite not being classified as least developed.

Stands to benefit

World Trade Organisation members meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 10 will discuss the fresh appeals to have the transition period extended on grounds that stringent intellectual property rights could hamper development of poor countries.

Proponents of the call to extend the transition have pointed out that premature adoption of the agreement will harm these countries technologicaly while ensuring they remain dependant on imported technologies.

Intellectual property, for many developing countries, is proving a double edged sword. A robust legal regime is needed to protect nascent industries. However, patent laws have been partly blamed for reducing access to drugs, technologies and even seeds that may alleviate hunger and treat debilitating diseases.

In 2001, the World Trade Organisation adopted the Doha Declaration which made it possible for countries to trade in copies of medicines produced without the consent of the patent owner. The organisation also extended until 2016 the deadline for underdeveloped countries to delay protection of pharmaceutical patents.

However, an unlimited extension of the window to implement the agreement would mean that the poorest countries would not have to protect pharmaceutical patents until they leave the least developed category.

The debate over patents has been especially heated when it comes to the treatment of HIV/Aids.

It has pitted countries like India with growing pharmaceutical industries against the United States and the European Union.

In its resolution, the East African assembly noted that the region faces public health and public nutrition challenges that could be exacerbated by tighter intellectual property rules.

Various United Nations agencies have indicated that an extension of the agreement transition period would be crucial in helping them fight some of these diseases. “An extension would allow the world’s poorest nations to ensure sustained access to medicines, build viable technology bases, and manufacture or import the medicines they need,” said UNAids executive director Michel Sidibé in a statement.

Five-year limit

The intellectual property has also been criticised for skewed redistribution of wealth that sees money flow  from developing countries to patent owners in developed countries.

Although they are resistant to the idea of extending the transition period, developed countries are not entirely opposed to the requests. The United States and the European Union have asked for a five-year limit on the extension.