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International Treaties

With such major issues cropping up, each requiring bilateral or multilateral give-and-take, consideration, cooperation, implementation, and mutual or overall acceptability, it become obvious that no country could operate or be left in isolation. For example, much of the Third World depends on advancements in the First World for their health needs, whereas the (industries in) First World not only source their various raw materials from countries of the Third World, but also have them as the major markets for their products. What resulted was the need to draft workable international agreements that found acceptance and compliance by all players. Some of the more important treaties and agreements, (each with its own degree of bias or leanings toward vested interests, but agreements nevertheless), that have attempted to address these issues are described here.


In 1994, an agreement that granted sovereign rights to countries over their indigenous biological resources come into force - the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity). This treaty was expected to provide ‘southern’ countries to reap some measure of benefit from international use of their indigenous knowledge. Firms could bioprospect only with consent, and both the firm and the species-rich country would need to share any and all benefits. A decade later, it’s obvious that biopiracy continues despite CBD.

Bio-patents under TRIPs, GATT

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a treaty aimed at freeing international trade and reducing tariffs, feeds the interests of huge companies while giving short shrift to the welfare of nations and their economic and social interests. In the mandate to ensure the 20-year patent life, including patents on life forms like seeds, patent holders can demand royalties on their inventions. Unfortunately, in opposition to normal rules of justice, the (unfairly) accused have to prove their innocence, which itself is a very costly process for small farmers dependent on seeds for their produce. In the case of patented seeds, companies prefer to market these rather than established varieties, so peasant farmers suffer economically. GATT also requires that all member countries grant protection to patents owned by other nationals. Patents on life were globalized at the Uruguay Round of GATT where intellectual property rights were included in trade treaties (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPs). Life forms thus entered IPR regimes, and subsequently gave rise to ‘biocolonialism’. (North-South Conflicts in Intellectual Property Rights)

TRIPs covers areas from pharmaceuticals to information technology, business practices to human gene sequences, and has brought out vary sharp differences between the so-called First and Third Worlds. Not only does the ‘agreement’ deny the Third World from making and importing cheaper variants of patented drugs for epidemics and debilitating diseases like AIDs. It also makes it mandatory for member countries to recognize a variety of bio-patents that include genes, cell lines, organisms and living processes that change “life into commodities”. With the phenomenal advancement of the US in this field, this means that many countries have agreed to terms and conditions that they have not fully grasped. (Why Biotech Patents Are Patently Absurd - Scientific Briefing on TRIPs and Related Issues)

Article 27.3(b) of TRIPs pertains to the patenting of life forms and living processes. There are several questions that can easily be answered with reason and logic; these are the grounds on which patents of life can and should be expeditiously terminated:

  • Since the scientist does not control the entire process involved in the bio-patent research or product, and are thus ‘expropriations from life’, are they inventions?
  • The scientific experiments are trial and error methodologies; and harm health and biodiversity; are they inventions?
  • Scientific basis is totally absent in the patenting of genes, genomes, cells and micro organisms; at best are they not discoveries?
  • Since bio-patents devastate common man’s living, oppose basic human rights, create avoidable suffering in animals “or are otherwise contrary to public order and morality”, aren’t most bio-patents unethical?
  • Since many patents involve direct or indirect use of traditional knowledge of indigenous species that has been used as needed but never exploited by local communities for millennia, don’t they constitute acts of plagiarism and biopiracy?

“When TRIPs was forced on countries during the Uruguay Round, many issues of public concern were bypassed and the full ethical, ecological and economic implications of patenting life were not discussed. Third World countries were coerced into accepting the Western style IPR system. Anything short of stopping biopiracy through reforming TRIPs is participation in a crime against nature and the poor”. (North-South Conflicts in Intellectual Property Rights). This is the most straightforward statement on the subject of patents on life in its present form in TRIPs.

International Seed Treaty (PGRFA)

One of the best examples of responsible international governance is the PGRFA, which ensures that genetic resources are maintained in the public domain and there is sufficient safeguard against future adversity. With the extensive revision of the International Undertaking of 1983, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA), well known as the International Seed Treaty got ratified in June 2004, despite heavyweights US and Japan not signing on the dotted line. The treaty complements and supplements the provisions in CBD, and the two aim at ensuring food security for all through the preserving, conserving, exchanging and prudently using the world's plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, as well as unbiased benefit sharing. Its other noble intentions include recognition of Farmers’ Rights to have free access to genetic resources without IP regime restrictions and also to participate in policy discussions, and decision making while continuing to use / save / sell / exchange seeds conforming to applicable law.

To realize these intentions, the Treaty incorporates a Multilateral System (MLS) to enable access to and share benefits accruing from 64 important food and forage crops that are needed to ensure food security through interdependence for all the signatories. Since it includes compulsory benefit sharing, one of its funding mechanisms is in place. The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), acting under UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is currently administering the Treaty till a dedicated governing body is formed.