May 2008


UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Day of General Discussion on article 15 (1a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the right to take part in cultural life
9 May 2008
Excerpted from an article in Intellectual Property Watch – 15 May 2008

Intellectual property rights came into play in a recent discussion on the right of all humans to take part in cultural life organised by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). The right to take part in cultural life is an accepted fundamental human right, mentioned in several international legal instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which in Article 15(1a), recognises the right of everyone to take part in cultural life. The CESCR implements the covenant.

Discussions at the event were organised around four main themes:

  • Exploring the definition of cultural life in the context of human rights;
  • Analysing the right to have access to and participate in cultural life;
  • Identifying the linkages between cultural rights and the universality of human rights; and
  • Assessing the individual and collective dimensions of the right to take part in cultural life.

The impact of copyright on access to culture was presented by Joost Smiers, professor emeritus at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands. He created a stir in the audience when he said that two main factors were preventing people to take part in cultural life: The system of copyright and the domination of cultural markets. He advised that copyright be abolished and that big cultural conglomerates be “cut into many pieces.” A “no copyright” system would avoid heavy investments in production of books, music or movies and offer an open space for diversity for artists not in the mainstream as no corporations would have the market power to push an artist out of the public eye, he said. CESCR Chairperson Philippe Texier said that although a reform of IP rights might be necessary, he did not see how the whole system of copyright could be abolished.

Later in the discussion, according to a CESCR release, Dommen said it is essential for the committee to address threats to cultural rights, such as pejorative provisions in free trade agreements or biopiracy, the misappropriation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, which are not fully protected by the IP system. In addition, she said, the way policies are made could affect the right to culture as, for instance, technological protection mechanisms used to control access to copyrighted material limit access to the digital content.


Read the UNHCR Press Release (9 May 2008)…

Read the IP Watch article…

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WIPO to Launch Pilot Training Program for Indigenous Communities

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will launch in September 2008 a pilot program to assist indigenous communities to document their own cultural traditions, archive this heritage for future generations, and safeguard their interest in authorizing use of their recordings and traditions by third parties.

New technologies provide communities with fresh opportunities to document and digitize expressions of their traditional cultures, meeting the strong desire of communities to preserve, promote and pass on their cultural heritage to succeeding generations. Yet, these new forms of documentation and digitization can leave this cultural heritage vulnerable to unwanted exploitation beyond the traditional circle. This pilot program recognizes both the utility of technology for indigenous communities and the paramount need to empower communities to make informed decisions about how to manage intellectual property issues in a way that corresponds with community values and development goals.

Our goal is to empower tradition-bearers to preserve and pass on their own traditional cultures if they wish to do so while safeguarding their intellectual property rights and interests – Francis Gurry, Deputy Director General of WIPO

The pilot program will begin in September, 2008, when two members of a Maasai community from Laikipia, Kenya and an expert from the National Museums of Kenya will travel to the American Folklife Center (AFC) and then to the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in the United States of America for intensive, hands-on training in documentary techniques and archival skills necessary for effective community-based cultural conservation. WIPO staff will provide intellectual property training. WIPO will also provide the Maasai with a basic kit of field equipment, computers and software for their own use when they return to Kenya.

Read the WIPO Press Release…
Read the UN Press Release…
Visit WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project…

OHCHR Indigenous Fellowship Programme

The aim of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Indigenous Fellowship Programme (IFP) is to give indigenous peoples the opportunity to gain knowledge of the UN system and mechanisms dealing with human rights in general, and indigenous issues in particular, so they can assist their organizations and communities in protecting and promoting the rights of their people. The four-month programme is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and is an inter-active process, which consists of briefings on several topics (i.e. OHCHR’s work, the UN system and mechanisms) individual and group assignments. Fellows also have the opportunity to receive training sessions with other UN agencies, including ILO, WIPO, UNESCO and UNITAR.

The deadline to apply to the 2009 Programme depends on the language component selected.

  • 2009 English speaking Programme deadline: Friday 27 June 2008;
  • 2009 Spanish speaking Programme deadline: Monday 30 June 2008;
  • 2009 French speaking Programme deadline: Monday 15 September 2008;
  • 2009 Russian speaking Programme deadline: Tuesday 30 September 2008.

Visit the IFP page for more information and application forms…

Ancient Chinese irrigation system stands test of time — and quake
Agence-France Presse – 22 May 2008

DUJIANGYAN, CHINA: High above the world’s oldest operating irrigation system, Zhang Shuanggun, a local villager, stands on an observation platform cracked by China’s massive earthquake last week. She has a simple answer for why the ancient, bamboo-based Dujiangyan irrigation system sustained only minor damage, while nearby modern dams and their vast amounts of concrete are now under 24-hour watch for signs of collapse. “This ancient project is perfection,” Zhang said. From the hillside platform, the workings of the ingenious irrigation project that is now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site are clearly visible. Read the article…

India’s Water Crisis: An Interview with Author Nitya Jacob
Environment News Service – 26 May 2008

DELHI, INDIA: Former business and environmental journalist Nitya Jacob has undertaken an unusual task – an ecological travelogue across the Indian subcontinent focused on water. The Delhi-based writer’s findings are stark. After writing a book on the subject, he says that in spite of surplus water, and one of the world’s richest traditions of managing it, India’s water crisis has reached critical levels. Jacob’s new book is called “Jalyatra: Exploring India’s Traditional Water Management Systems.” In it he observes, “The 5,000 years worth of traditional knowledge which made India one of the richest countries in the not-too-distant past has been forgotten and is one of the main reasons behind the crisis.” Read the article…

Climate change plea from tribe of herders who face extinction
The Independent [UK] – 10 May 2008

LONDON, UK: Olav Mathias-Eira is a member of the Sami community, one of the largest indigenous groups remaining in Europe, and his family have been herding reindeer in the same stretch of the Norwegian Arctic since the 1400s. But because of climate change, their lifestyle, unchanged for centuries, is now at risk. So Mr Mathias-Eira, 50, has travelled to Britain to issue an urgent plea in the hope that his people and livelihood can be saved. The heavy winter rains and storms, previously unheard of, are making their ancient ice-roads treacherous. Because these thinning pathways are necessary to reach their reindeer, they turn herding into a life-threatening experience. Now only 10 per cent of the remaining Samis are herding reindeer, which means that a cornerstone of their traditional way of life is in jeopardy. “The reindeer [weighs] about 80kg, and it needs a good, solid ice when you are moving the herd,” said Mr Mathias-Eira. “But traditional knowledge is no good any more, we just can’t trust the ice.” Read the article…

SA Community Fights Plant Patent
The Times [South Africa] – 11 May 2008

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: Omthunzi Sizani, a teacher who earned extra cash from harvesting a medicinal plant growing around her house, has helped to lodge a patent challenge against a multinational drug company that uses the plant’s powerful chemicals. Sizani joined a team of South African lawyers and environmentalists who launched the challenge at the European Union Patent Office headquarters in Munich, Germany, this week. It is the first time a South African rural community has formally challenged a patent on what they consider to be their traditional knowledge. Schwabe Pharmaceuticals has patented the extraction method used to dilute the active ingredient of Umckaloabo, also known as Pelargonium, used as a traditional medicine in the Eastern Cape and parts of Lesotho. Read the article…

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