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[afro-nets] World health: A lethal dose of US politics

World health: A lethal dose of US politics
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>From Vern Weitzel <vern@coombs.anu.edu.au>

World health: A lethal dose of US politics
By Dylan C Williams

BANGKOK - When World Health Organization (WHO) director general Lee Jong-wook 
died of a cerebral hemorrhage last month before the start of the United Nations 
agency's annual World Health Assembly, the world's most prominent public-health 
official was arguably of a conflicted mind.

The WHO veteran was caught in the middle of an intensifying global debate over 
how to reconcile intellectual-property protection with the pressing 
public-health need to expand access to expensive life-saving medicines, a 
hot-button issue that has sharply divided WHO member states along developed- 
and developing-country lines.

An Asia Times Online investigation reveals that at the time of his death, Lee, 
a South Korean national, had closely aligned himself with the US government and 
by association US corporate interests, often to the detriment of the WHO's most 
vital commitments and positions, including its current drive to promote the 
production and marketing of affordable generic antiretroviral drugs for 
millions of poor infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which 
can cause AIDS.

According to senior and middle-ranking WHO officials familiar with the 
situation, Lee blatantly bent to US government pressure in March when he made 
the controversial decision to recall the WHO country representative to 
Thailand, William Aldis, who had served less than 16 months in what 
traditionally has been a four-year or longer posting.

A wrong opinion Aldis had made the mistake of penning a critical opinion piece 
in the Bangkok Post newspaper in February that argued in consonance with WHO 
positions that Thailand should carefully consider before surrendering its 
sovereign right to produce or import generic life-saving medicines as allowed 
by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in exchange for a bilateral free-trade 
agreement (FTA) with the United States, which is currently under negotiation.

The WHO official also wrote that the stricter intellectual-property protection 
measures in the proposed US-Thai FTA would inevitably lead to higher drug 
prices and thereby jeopardize the lives of "hundreds of thousands" of Thai 
citizens who now depend on access to locally produced cheap medicines to 
survive. He noted too that the Thai government's current production of generic 
treatments had allowed the country to reduce AIDS-related deaths by a whopping 
79%.

Aldis' arguments directly mirrored stated WHO positions, but significantly were 
at direct odds with the objectives of current US trade policy, which through 
the establishment of bilateral FTAs aims to bind signatory countries into 
extending their national intellectual-property legislation far beyond the 
parameters of current WTO agreed standards.

A recent US Congressional Research Service report states that the United 
States' main purpose for pursuing bilateral FTAs is to advance US 
intellectual-property protection rather than promoting more free trade. The 
Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, the applicable US legislation 
for bilateral FTAs, states explicitly that Trade-Related Intellectual Property 
Standards, or TRIPS, are by law non-negotiable and must reflect a standard of 
protection similar to that found in US law.

A US ambassador to the UN in Geneva paid a private visit to Lee on March 23 to 
express Washington's displeasure with Aldis' newspaper commentary, according to 
WHO officials familiar with the meeting. A follow-up letter from the US 
government addressed to Lee strongly impressed Washington's view of the 
importance of the WHO to remain "neutral and objective" and requested that Lee 
personally remind senior WHO officials of those commitments, according to a WHO 
staff member who reviewed the correspondence.

The next day, Lee informed the regional office in New Delhi of his decision to 
recall Aldis.

Perhaps strategically, Aldis' removal coincided with the height of Thailand's 
recent political crisis, and failed to generate any local media attention at 
the time. Internally, Lee had characterized Aldis' transfer to a research 
position of considerable less authority in New Delhi as a promotion.

Suwit Wibulpolprasert, senior adviser to the Thai Ministry of Public Health, 
early this month sent a formal letter to acting WHO director general Anders 
Nordstrom, requesting an official explanation for Aldis' abrupt removal.

A large number of WHO staff members are employed on renewable 11-month 
contracts, meaning that their standing inside the organization is on 
perpetually shaky ground and hence curbs their ability to voice critical 
opinions.

(cut here)

--
Claudio Schuftan 
mailto<claudio@hcmc.netnam.vn>

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