28 February 2016

Aussie Turns on Aussie as US Congress Shines Light on Allegations of Skulduggery at WIPO

Smoking GunOn Wednesday 24 February 2016 a number of US Congressional subcommittees held a joint hearing on ‘Establishing Accountability at the World Intellectual Property Organization: Illicit Technology Transfers, Whistleblowing, and Reform’.  Three witnesses appeared at the hearing: Mr James Pooley, who is a US citizen and the former Deputy Director for Innovation and Technology at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO); Ms Miranda Brown, who holds dual Australian/British citizenship (as do I), and is the former Strategic Adviser to WIPO Director General (DG) Mr Francis Gurry (also an Australian); and Dr Matthew Parish, an international lawyer of US origin, now practising in Geneva, who appeared in his capacity as legal counsel to the sole union representing the interests of WIPO employees, the Staff Council.

The testimony of the three witnesses is incendiary and damning of Gurry, and makes for fascinating, if uneasy, reading. 

Pooley reprises his earlier allegations regarding Gurry’s ‘secret’ programs to ship ‘high-end computers and other electronic gear to North Korea and Iran’, his ‘secret’ plans to open WIPO satellite offices in China and Russia, and his intimidation of, and retaliation against, whistleblowers within WIPO.  Pooley also implicates Australian officials – most notably the then-Ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley – in blocking Congressional efforts to put forward a US candidate to challenge Gurry’s re-appointment to a second term as WIPO DG in 2013.

In her testimony, Brown makes serious allegations of ‘retaliation’ by Gurry against her, after she blew the whistle on the shipments to North Korea and Iran, along with ‘further abuses of authority by Mr Gurry.’  She alleges that, as a result, she was forced onto ‘extended medical leave for stress’, but that the retaliatory actions resumed upon her return until Gurry declined to renew her contract ‘on the basis that [she] was disloyal and too close to the Member States and in particular the US’.

Parish returns to allegations dating back to 2008 – and also addressed in Brown’s testimony – that Gurry was involved in ‘the theft of [staff members’] personal effects and the subsequent extraction of those staff members’ DNA, without their consent’.  These events allegedly occurred as part of an investigation by Swiss police into anonymous and allegedly defamatory letters regarding Gurry and his wife that had been delivered to various people at WIPO.  The allegations have since been investigated by the Office of Internal Oversight Service of the United Nations (OIOS), however Parish alleges that the resulting report is being withheld from WIPO staff and member countries.

Parish also accuses Gurry of dismantling an existing WIPO staff disciplinary system, replacing it with a new system that puts all power and discretion in relation to discipline into the hands of the DG, and allegedly abusing that power to dismiss one of his strongest critics, the former Chair of the WIPO Staff Council, Mr Moncef Kateb.  Parish also strongly implies that WIPO staff are, as a consequence, intimidated and fearful for their job security, and thus goes out of his way to assert that his testimony is not based upon information received from any particular staff members.

I have written previously about Pooley’s grievances with Gurry, which led to Pooley filing a formal ‘Report of Misconduct’ with the legislative branches of WIPO, and with the US Mission in Geneva.  At the time, Pooley was the most senior US official at WIPO.  His report accused Gurry of ‘serious misconduct’ and ‘violations of national and international law’.

My opinion has always been – and remains – that the only reason the US maintains such an abiding interest in Gurry and the goings-on at WIPO is the organisation’s dealings with ‘less favoured’ countries, in particular North Korea, Iran, China and Russia.  In the absence of these parochial concerns, I dare say the US Congress would find other things to do with its time, rather than trying to shine a light into the allegedly dark corners of an international organisation that is not even close to being on the radars of ordinary US electors.  But that does not mean that the illumination is inappropriate or unnecessary.

You would have to be spectacularly naïve to believe that anyone could rise to the top of an international organisation such as WIPO, or remain there, without cultivating strategic alliances, calling in a few favours and making enemies along the way.  We live in the world of realpolitik, not the world of John Lennon’s imagination.  The question is not whether political machinations of the type ‘exposed’ by Pooley and the other witnesses occur at WIPO, but rather whether they in fact rise to the level of abuse and illegality, as is being alleged.

In the Australian IP community, Francis Gurry is regarded as something of a hero.  As an Australian who has risen to one of the highest offices in the UN, he is living proof of Australia’s belief that we ‘punch above our weight’ when it comes to intellectual property.  In recognition of his achievements, since 2009 one of the premier events on the IP calendar has been the annual Francis Gurry Lecture, run by the Melbourne Law School with support from such professional organisations as the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia (IPTA) and the Intellectual Property Society of Australia and New Zealand (IPSANZ).  The lecture has been given (twice) by Gurry himself, as well as by local and international luminaries such as High Court Chief Justice Robert French, IP Kat blog founder Jeremy Phillips, and Mr Justice Birss of the High Court of England and Wales.

And there is no question that Gurry has been a great servant to the cause of IP.  It is entirely believable that his desire to assist countries like North Korea and Iran, which struggle to participate in the global system, as well as to open satellite offices of WIPO in two of the fastest-growing sources of international IP, is motivated by the best of intentions.

However, if Gurry has overstepped his authority, or engaged in inappropriate, abusive or illegal actions, in the course of his service to the world of IP, then the WIPO member countries, WIPO staff, and the people and organisations in Australia who have long supported him in his endeavours, absolutely deserve to know the truth.  Equally, Gurry deserves to see his name cleared if these allegations are untrue.

It is time for WIPO to open its doors and let the light shine in.

Image by Charles Knowles via Flikr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0


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