State Department: World Intellectual Property Organization Did Not Violate UN Sanctions on North Korea or Iran

The UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been the target of some relentless criticism from certain quarters for transferring computer equipment to two of its member states: North Korea and Iran. FoxNews published a big report last April that brought the North Korea transfer of about $50,000 of computer equipment to light. Since then, pundits of a certain persuasion have piled on and are looking to punish the organization. The US Congress is launching its own investigation. UN opponents here in the USA are using this episode as a cudgel to bash the UN.

One may agree or disagree on the political optics of sending some computers and ICT equipment to Iran or North Korea, but the key question is whether or not WIPO violated Security Council sanctions by doing so. It would be really bad if a UN agency broke UN sanctions, to say the least.  That is why prior to transferring the equipment to North Korea, WIPO’s in house counsel weighed in on the issue. He advised that the transfers were OK under Security Council guidelines.

The US State Department agrees. In a statement provided to UN Dispatch, a State Department spokesperson writes:

We share the concerns raised by members of Congress concerning equipment and software transfers. We have been in constant contact with WIPO to learn more and to urge it to institute substantive safeguards to ensure appropriate levels of oversight, transparency and accountability. Our preliminary assessment is that there was no violation of UN sanctions. We do not believe that the items in question are subject to Security Council sanctions on Iran or the DPRK, but we await the views of the respective UN sanctions committees. We do not yet have enough information to reach conclusions as to whether any of the transfers to the DPRK or Iran were in violation of U.S. controls. We continue to press WIPO to provide more information.

In response to our discussions with WIPO officials, the organization has announced a number of positive steps: WIPO has agreed to commission an external investigation into the projects involving Iran and the DPRK;  WIPO has also agreed to seek a retroactive opinion from the UN Sanctions Committees on the application of UN sanctions to the Iran and North Korea projects; and WIPO has also disseminated an official policy that future development projects in countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions will be reviewed by WIPO Legal Counsel, and if appropriate, referred to the appropriate UN sanctions committee for guidance.

While the World Intellectual Property Organization is a less well known UN agency, it serves a pretty vital role. If your perspective is as an American, is also demonstrably advances American interests by providing a forum in which American businesses can adjudicate international copyright disputes. Major American companies, from American Express, to Google to World Wrestling Entertainment have turned to WIPO when a foreign entity infringes on their copyright.

Even Beyonce has used WIPO! In 2010, the singer brought a complaint before WIPO alleging that an online perfume vendor using the domain name was a “cyber-squatter” who is violating her trademark.  She won the case.

The idea that America should punish the UN or WIPO over transfers that did not even violate international sanctions makes little sense. It would only end up hurting American businesses.