Politics of punctuation

A comma gave rise to an argument over whether technology transfer should take place according to terms agreed upon at Rio or terms mutually agreed upon later

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

-- THE SOUTH had a two-point agenda in Rio: funds and technology. It failed to get both. The North continued to insist that technology is a private resource which states cannot give away, whereas the South continued to ask for technology on preferential and concessional terms.

If there was any movement forward, it was in the agreement that the northern governments may purchase private patents and licences at commercial terms and transfer them to the South on concessional terms. The European Community was in favour of this, but Japan and the US opposed it.

Where will the money to purchase this technology come from? Even a G-77 delegate admitted it would probably come from the agreed aid budgets, that is, out of the financial commitments of the donor countries, not in addition to them.

The South wanted to include the concept of "compulsory acquisition" of technology, but industrialised countries made it clear that companies would transfer technology only in extreme circumstances. The compromise text includes safeguards like measures to prevent the abuse of intellectual property to ensure that compulsory licensing is as restricted and regulated as possible.

The final text endorses the idea that developing countries should have access to environmentally-sound technologies on concessional and preferential terms, but with due regard to the intellectual property rights of northern industries.

The second issue, concerning the terms on which the transfer of environmentally-sound technology would take place, got embroiled in the politics of a punctuation mark. Developing countries wanted the terms to be concessional and preferential, that is, removed from normal commercial dealings.

The negotiators had agreed that northern countries would "promote, facilitate, and finance, as appropriate" access and transfer of technology "on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms as mutually agreed...." The prickly question was whether this transfer would be on terms mutually agreed upon in Rio or which would be mutually agreed upon in the future, thus, keeping the negotiations open.

The North, led by the US, added a comma before "mutually agreed" which changed the meaning of the sentence. When discussions began in Rio, the US wanted to replace the text with corresponding text on technology transfer from the biodiversity convention. Southern delegates were quick to point out the irony: the US had refused to agree to the biodiversity convention mainly objecting to the agreement on technology transfer. And there was no such prized comma in the biodiversity convention. Finally, when the G-77 gave in, the US changed its mind and refused to accept the agreement even with the comma.

The third issue was the North's desire to protect intellectual property rights. It repeatedly attempted to describe the entire negotiation as an agreement on technology cooperation. But as one Indian negotiator put it, "If we can only buy technology on commercial terms, then why are we wasting our time here?"

The agreement reached in Rio upholds the sanctity of privately-held knowledge and technology -- an objective which ironically both southern and northern governments when talking about the traditional knowledge of the poor in the biodiversity convention.

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