U.S. Probes UN’s WIPO Over Projects With Sanctioned Iran

The U.S. is investigating the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization’s activities in Iran, which is under UN sanctions, and calling for greater transparency and accountability at the institution.

“The State Department first became aware of a WIPO development project in Iran in early May, while conducting a review of all WIPO projects in countries under UN Security Council sanctions,” Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a spokeswoman for the department in Washington, said by e-mail yesterday. “We have received several projects documents and are reviewing them.”

WIPO, a 185-member body that promotes the use and development of intellectual property, sent a shipment of information-technology equipment to Iran that was received by August 2010, according to documents seen by Bloomberg News and supplied by a WIPO employee who declined to be identified as the material is confidential.

Geneva-based WIPO has a mandate from members to help developing countries modernize their patent offices. Iran and North Korea, both subjects of international trade embargoes including Security Council resolutions, were both beneficiaries of “standard information-technology equipment” after meeting WIPO’s needs-assessment and validation procedures, according to Edward Kwakwa, legal counsel at the organization.

“These programs did not include the type of technology or training prohibited by the UN Security Council resolutions for the said countries,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

UN Sanctions

Iran has been the subject of four rounds of UN sanctions aimed at curbing the development of nuclear weapons and including the supply or sale of equipment and technology that would aid the Persian Gulf nation’s atomic work. The European Union and the U.S. have also imposed their own trade restrictions, including oil embargoes.

While WIPO isn’t intentionally assisting the Islamic republic’s nuclear or energy industries, the supply of computer equipment risks breaching a U.S. economic embargo and may violate UN and EU prohibitions on dual-use technologies, because computers can be used for military purposes as well as civilian ones, according to Matthew Parish, a lawyer with Holman Fenwick Willan LLP in Geneva.

“This is politically very embarrassing,” he said today. “Businesses and other international organizations are increasingly avoiding all contact with Iran, and it seems astonishing that WIPO does not feel obliged to follow the same principles.”

North Korea

WIPO has also had a technology-supply project with North Korea to support intellectual-property databases for inventors’ certificates, patents and non-patent literature, according to internal documents. Technical assistance included desktop computers, servers, printers and firewalls, the documents show.

The U.S. held discussions with WIPO Director General Francis Gurry to modify the approval process for development projects and will work with other countries to urge Gurry to let external parties investigate past projects in places including Iran and North Korea, according to the State Department.

“In light of concerns expressed recently, WIPO will in the future systematically refer relevant cases of technical assistance to countries under a UN sanctions regime to the UN Sanctions Committee,” Kwakwa said.

WIPO’s activities in sanctioned countries also attracted the attention of members of the House of Representatives questioning Teresa Stanek Rea, deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, at a June 27 hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary.

“I have closely been following reports that WIPO officials have been transferring computers, firewalls and other technological devices to the governments of North Korea and Iran,” Representative Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told the committee. “Needless to say we find this highly distressing, not only because it potentially violates a slew of UN Security Council resolutions.”