NGOs urge EFTA countries not to endanger public health, food security and development in Thailand

Zürich, 19.01.2006 - In a letter addressed to EFTA-trade and foreign ministers, 50 organisations urged the trade association’s member states to drop provisions from a free trade agreement with Thailand that would restrict access to cheap medicines and credit and limit farmers rights. A second round of negotiations is taking place this week in Thailand. The undersigning NGOs fear that a free trade agreement between EFTA and Thailand could have a negative impact on Thai society.

In October 2005 the European Free Trade Association (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) and Thailand started negotiations for a free trade agreement, which both parties intend to conclude by the end of 2006. Responding to a parliamentary inquiry the government of Liechtenstein recently confirmed that the EFTA states intend to include provisions to strengthen intellectual property protection in Thailand beyond its obligations under the WTO TRIPS agreement.

EFTA is pushing for far-reaching intellectual property rules (5-year patent extension, 5 to 10-year test data exclusivity) that would delay and complicate the introduction of cheap generic medicines in Thailand. In a country beset by serious epidemics, such restrictions are totally inappropriate. Today there are some 700,000 people with HIV / AIDS in Thailand (about 1.5% of the adult population). Thanks to cheap generic drugs the country has been able to expand its program of highly active antiretroviral therapy to patients in need. Unlike the medicines of the first-line antiretroviral regimen, most drugs used in the second-line regimen are under patent in Thailand and their price is significantly higher. Instead of strengthening monopolistic rights of pharmaceutical companies, the agreement should allow Thailand to use generic alternatives in order to provide affordable medicines for its people.

Regarding agriculture, EFTA-countries no longer insist that Thailand join the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) but merely that it offer a protection in line with the UPOV-agreement of 1978. While this is better than in former EFTA agreements, one wonders why EFTA bothers at all to make rules regarding the ways in which it expects Thailand to protect its plant varieties. With such rules and the demand for patents on “biotechnological inventions” (including plants for agriculture) EFTA-countries actually limit the flexibility that still exists in the TRIPS-agreement.

EFTA states also require Thailand to liberalize its financial sector and to suppress controls on capital flows. While EFTA-based insurances and banks stand to benefit from these measures, local financial institutions – the main source of cheap credits for women and rural populations – will be weakened and Thailand will become more vulnerable to financial crises in other countries.

In their letter to EFTA trade and foreign ministers, the 50 organizations from Thailand, Switzerland, Norway and Liechtenstein call for a trade agreement without additional intellectual property provisions and without measures to liberalize the Thai financial sector. Instead of following US-style bilateralism, EFTA governments should give Thailand maximum flexibility in drafting an IPR-law in line with its actual needs. EFTA governments should drop all demands for the liberalization of the financial sector and promote improvements in the global structure of the financial sector instead, for example in bank supervision.The following organizations are endorsing the letter :

Thailand: AIDS ACCESS Foundation, Alliance of Democratic Trade Union, Alternative Agriculture Network, Assembly of the Poor, Biodiversity and Community Right Action, Confederation of Consumers Organisation, Drug Study Group, Foundation for Consumers, FTA Watch, Focus on the Global South, Thai Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS

Liechtenstein: Liechtenstein Association for Environmental Protection (LGU), Verein Welt und Heimat, 'Aktion: Wir teilen. Das alternative Fastenopfer'

Norway: The Development Fund - Norway, attac Norway, Friends of the Earth Youth Norway - "Natur og Ungdom" // Only the health aspect: Médecin Sans Frontières - Norway

Switzerland: Berne Declaration, Alliance Sud, Ärztinnen und Ärzte für Umweltschutz - Médecins en faveur de l'environnement, Association Maison Populaire de Genève, Association romande des Magasins du Monde, attac Suisse, Bethlehem Mission Immensee, Blauen-Institut, Bread for all, Comité pour l'Anulation de la Dette du Tiers Monde (CADTM)-Suisse, CO-OPERAID, E-CHANGER, Geneva Federation for Cooperation and Development, Geneva Infant Feeding (GIFA), Greenpeace, Groupe de Travail Suisse - Colombie - Arbeitsgruppe Schweiz - Kolumbien, medico international schweiz, MIVA Schweiz, Restaure la Terre, SID'Action, SolidarMed, SOLIFONDS, Syndicat interprofessionnel de travailleuses et travailleurs (SIT), Swissaid, TearFund, terre des hommes schweiz, World Vision Switzerland // Only the health aspect: Antenne Sida du Valais romand, Centrale Sanitaire Suisse Romande, Groupe Sida Genève, Médecins Sans Frontières - Suisse, Swiss Aids Federation