Should national sovereignty be conserved?
Keywords:  Access to genetic resources; Intellectual property rights.
Correct citation: nn. (1994), "Editorial: Should national sovereignty be conserved?" Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 21, p. 2. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity has replaced the principle of common heritage of genetic resources with the concept of national sovereign rights over genetic resources. Apart from the fact that "gene­poor" countries de facto are unlikely to benefit from sovereign rights, it should also be questioned to what extent "gene­rich" countries will. In this Monitor issue several articles discuss this matter. This discussion is important as long as governments have not translated the implications of the Convention into national jurisdiction.

In their contribution, Mugabe and Ouko (ACTS) support the ConventionÕs acknowledgement of sovereignty, providing that developing countries formulate regulatory and legislative measures to achieve the desired benefits. But it is this requirement that illustrates one of the weakest points of the Convention. How can national sovereignty be implemented in countries that lack the legal infrastructure to set up patent offices, courts, etc.? And how will a government, often reluctant to recognize the rights of local communities, trade the resources of these communities?

In a recent report to the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, Stephan Brush questions to what extent a 'market approach' disrupts local exchange of land races. Some groups of farmers may wish to claim the benefits, thereby frustrating the tradition of exchanging land races. The problem becomes even more complicated when histories of international crop migration are considered. Sovereign rights might even influence international relations when several countries share the pool of genetic resources. In the case of wheat Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan share the gene pool. When one country sets a price for these resources, others might want to undercut it, resulting in an overall price­fall from which no country benefits.

A conference recently organized by the WWF and SWISSAID confirmed the hesitation towards the commoditization of genetic resources. This was especially expressed through the critique on `biodiversity prospecting'. Will the market mechanism through which the price for genetic diversity is set by the demand side really result in benefits for the country of origin? We might therefore agree with Jain's argument (Page 24) that the short­term gains from commercializing genetic resources are by no means as large as the long­term losses suffered by world agriculture.

A statement such as this is one thing, but the design of a good non­market approach towards the conservation of genetic resources is yet another thing. The solution perhaps lies in the re­evaluation of the idea to create a multilateral trust fund to finance conservation programmes that will benefit farmers. A fund supported by farmers' rights (as proposed by FAO in the early 90s) would eliminate the need for intellectual property rights or contracts to directly connect supply and demand. A multilateral instead of an international compensation mechanism carried by sovereignty rights may be the only way to prevent the value of genetic resources being quickly crushed by divergent national interests.

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