Canada could find itself in a very embarrassing position at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Qatar this weekend. It could be one of just five countries in the world opposing a declaratipon that ensures access to essential medicines for millions of people.
The WTO enforces the monopoly rights of international drug companies by giving them twenty years of legally binding patent protection. When countries like South Africa turn to cheaper, generic versions of medicines to treat their AIDS epidemics, drug companies constantly threaten them with WTO challenges. A consortium of pharmaceutical companies actually filed a lawsuit against South Africa, even while it was struggling to cope with an epidemic that will kill an estimated seven million people in the country.
African nations are making a very modest proposal at the Qatar meeting. Their declaration states that nothing in WTO rules on patents should prevent member countries from taking measures to protect public health. To our shame as a nation, Canada has joined with the United States, Australia, Japan and Switzerland in promising to block the African initiative. At the same time our trade minister is making grand speeches about how globalization must be made to work for developing countries.
Because it can only be passed by a unanimous vote, Canadas opposition will help kill the African declaration. That will also ultimately kill millions of people in developing countries around the world.
Despite mounting evidence that WTO patent rules are used repeatedly as threats to keep countries from providing access to essential medicines, Canadian trade officials say these rules are flexible enough to protect public health. But Canadas own experience proves otherwise. When our own generic drug legislation was challenged, we argued before a dispute panel that the WTO agreement on patents was never intended to unduly prejudice the vital public interest.
That agreement was supposed to balance the protection of trade interests against the public need for affordable medicines. But the panel of trade lawyers rejected Canadas argument and ruled we had violated patent rules. Partly as a result, drug costs are the fastest growing portion of our healthcare budget. And now, Canada has not only given up the fight it is complicit in enforcing a protection racket for some of the worlds most powerful corporations.
Slowly but inexorably, Canada is losing dozens of cherished public policies, along with its reputation for fairness among Third World countries. This is not happening through the normal and transparent public policy process. It is happening through the backdoor of a virtually uncontested free trade imperative. Trade bureaucrats and their servile political masters are transforming our country without our authority or even our knowledge. It is time we stopped them.
This piece was originally presented as a CBC Commentary on November 8. Posted on rabble news with permission.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.