Is the UN sharing technology illegally with Iran?

Has the United Nations been ignoring its own sanctions against assisting the improvement of technology that could be used in the creation or development of a nuclear program in Iran? According to US officials, the answer might be yes… and they’re going to be the ones to find out for sure.

There is concern that the United Nation’s World Intellectual Property Organization has – whether knowingly or otherwise – been disobeying UN-imposed sanctions concerning the sharing of technology that could potentially be used for the possible construction of nuclear weapons with organizations or individuals within Iran. The UN Security Council imposed the sanctions in 2006, announcing that all member states should, effective immediately, “prevent the supply, sale or transfer, for the use by or benefit of Iran, of related equipment and technology, if the State determined that such items would contribute to enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy-water related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.”

Unfortunately, WIPO doesn’t seem to be doing that. According to US State Department spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala, “The State Department first became aware of a WIPO development project in Iran in early May, while conducting a review of all WIPO projects in countries under UN Security Council sanctions. We have received several projects documents and are reviewing them.”

The problem may be rooted in what technology can be considered “related” to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems. WIPO has a United Nations mandate of its own, after all, to “promote the protection of intellectual property through cooperation among states and in collaboration with other international organizations, [ensure] that all countries are able to benefit from the use of IP for economic, social and cultural development.” As WIPO points out, “implied in this [mandate] are the notions of balance, accessibility and reward for creativity and innovation,” and it’s specifically the notion of accessibility that it was seeking to address with the technology sharing that has landed it in such hot water.

After meeting WIPO’s needs-assessment and validation requirements, both Iran and North Korea – another country facing UN Security Council sanctions – have been the beneficiaries of “standard information-technology equipment” sharing, according to the organization. WIPO’s legal counsel, Edward Kwakwa, confirmed as such when asked by Bloomberg, offering a statement that explained that the organization’s equipment “did not include the type of technology or training prohibited by the UN Security Council resolutions for the said countries.”

Others aren’t convinced by that defense, however; not only the US State Department has announced that it is looking into what, exactly, happened between WIPO and Iran, but the issue has also been raised in the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. For its part, Kwakwa explained, WIPO will try harder not to ignore sanctions from its own governing body in future: “In light of concerns expressed recently,” he said, “WIPO will in the future systematically refer relevant cases of technical assistance to countries under a UN sanctions regime to the UN Sanctions Committee.”

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