Director-General Designate, World Trade Organization
The announcement of a new Thai government on 18 February 2001 signaled the end of the central role that Dr Supachai has played in previous Thai administrations during the last decade. As the person scheduled to replace Mr Mike Moore as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization in June 2002, he would no doubt have the sympathy of many if he chose to shun publicity during this brief intermission in his public career. It is therefore a tribute to the gravity of the topic of globalization and its implications on access to medicines and an expression of the special affinity that he feels for both the topic and his alma mater, Chulalongkorn University, that Dr Supachai agreed to open this meeting on his first day outside government, even though it meant flying in from his home town of Chiang Mai specifically to do so.
It would also appear that much of what he had intended to say had already been covered by the earlier speakers namely, the host, Dr Siripen Supakankunti and Dr Doberstyn, WHO Representative, Thailand. Having concurred with their statements, he set aside his prepared statement and proceeded to speak quite candidly on what he perceived to be the problems of our globalized world and the role that governments and multilateral institutions could play in remedying the situation.
“I am happy to be here” he said, “because I think that the issues that you are dealing with are of paramount importance, particularly if we look at the ongoing process of globalization which has become less and less human. I have attended so many international meetings and conferences around the world in the last few years, where I would see demonstrations and protests by people fearing the unknown factor that was born in the wake of the so called globalization interdependence process around the world, be it Seattle, Washington DC, Prague, Melbourne, even here in Chiang Mai, when we had the ADB meeting last year and in Davos, where I would say that the richest and the most powerful gather once every year.”
In the light of this external perception of the WTO, he emphasized his desire to give it a human face adding, “I would like to put a human face on the WTO, which has always been called the rich man’s club. I have to change that.”
Broadening this point to include an appeal for shared responsibility, he further stated, “These are the facts of life. Globalization must be shown to be a more balanced process and must be managed internationally to provide some kind of benefit for all. Globalization may be part of the capitalist market system but it must be globally managed and I emphasize this now as I have emphasized it everywhere in the world. It cannot just be or be said to be, a process that international organizations like the World Bank, IMF and WTO can take care of.
They can manage their own separate stances. I have not left out WHO, but I am saying that all the major international organizations including the WTO, UNCTAD, UNIDO and UNDP must find a way to work together, otherwise we will not be able to steer globalization in the direction that would provide benefits for mankind.
“There is an opportunity to benefit from market mechanisms” he continued, “I for one being an economist, would not deny that it would be a boost, a boon to the market mechanism, but the spin out effect on the rest of the population, the spin out effect on the poor countries around the world, on the forty eight poor (least developed) countries around the world, is in doubt.”
Narrowing down his remarks to address the TRIPS Agreement, Dr Supachai noted that TRIPS had only entered the trade talks during the Uruguay Round and that it was quite possible that at the time, developing countries had not fully appreciated its probable impact.
“Thailand has suffered in this process” he said, “One government came down over the question of IPR (intellectual property rights). It was extensively debated in Thailand and in many developing countries and there are a large number of countries around the world who think that we must review the TRIPS Agreement. At the moment this is partly being done in Geneva. Some countries which cannot meet the commitment of the TRIPS Agreement, are now vying for support to revise TRIPS before the next Round, the 9th Round, which will commence sometime this year. There is already some kind of movement to look into the consequences of TRIPS particularly on developing countries. I am sure that you are also doing this, that you are looking at TRIPS particularly at its impact on the supply of pharmaceutical products. This is one thing that needs to be brought into the bigger picture.”
Clearly aware of how his pronouncements were being received in various quarters, he remarked, “People keep reminding me that I should act as the incoming DG, not as a former deputy Prime Minister, because I would have to serve all of these countries, but I will not relent in my criticism of countries which still think in terms of a few decades ago while we are in a new millennium. I will look into the new global equation with much more caution.” His subsequent remarks provide some insight as to how and to what extent, such caution may actually be exercised.
“There are many things in the TRIPS requirements that we need to reconsider, so that the requirements would not place an unnecessary burden on the poor countries. It would also enable the poor countries to pursue their developmental goals, for example, educational development and health care development. The protection of the environment and the protection of other rights should be achieved without harming the basic developmental approach of that country. I would like to establish this as an ongoing fact, but this has met with a lot of opposition, particularly from some countries whom I will not name here, because I already faced enough difficulties.”
Dr Supachai clearly preferred that the review of the TRIPS Agreement commence before the launch of the new Round saying “So we are looking at implementation and I am sure that before the next Round, which I will call the Development Round, we would have some sort of agreement to look into some of the requirements of TRIPS. I am sure that there will also be some review of the requirements connected to patent rights and the protection of patent rights, that must have some bearing on certain kinds of essential drugs.”
Expanding further on this point, he noted “There is a lot of controversy around patent protection for essential drugs. Countries that produce them under patents are saying that only a few essential drugs are under protection and that it was up to each country to enact policies to force the production of cheaper drugs. I have been dealing with the case of our own public health policy to which certain countries may raise some objections, but I have also begun to observe that even these countries who used to have outright objections because of pressure from the pharmaceutical companies, now realize that they may need to change the way that they look at the unchangeable protection of certain rights. I was told that during the G8 Summit in Okinawa and some preceding summits, people were also discussing the TRIPS requirements, the protection of intellectual property rights and the need to make them serve mankind more than they have been doing so in the past.”
These remarks were balanced by his recognition of the value of patents saying, “While I am trying to say that we need to change the outlook of the WTO, TRIPS and the protection of intellectual property rights, I am not saying that we have to discard the TRIPS and intellectual property rights protection. I am saying that we still need to encourage more research on drugs, pharmaceutical products and everything. So we will still need to have such protection but there must be some exceptions to the WTO rules as with many other things. We normally grant exemptions when trade negatively affects environmental factors. We also have some leeway in order to exempt some drugs from protection if the problem is of an epidemic scale or if it has serious consequences on a nation.”
Dr Supachai then focused on the specific issue of HIV/AIDS and drugs and the role that civil society is playing in this area, remarking that “There are a lot of organizations around the world which are now better organized to fight against the delayed release of expensive drugs and essential drugs that are much needed to counter and fight against disease in poor nations. I think that there are several movements in the right direction. I think that movements like these must be backed up by scientific tests and assessments like what we are doing here, in order to monitor the effects of globalization, TRIPS and the other WTO Agreements with implications for the health sector, trying to look at pricing policy, government policy, compulsory licensing, generics and others. All this will help me and people working in the same direction to address the review of TRIPS”.
Clearly someone who is familiar with health issues, Dr Supachai spoke proudly of his participation within the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health. With regards to collaboration with WHO he spoke of his contacts with Dr Brundtland and was unequivocal in saying “During my term, and even before or after, I would like to emphasize the need for the WTO and WHO to work closely together so that the WTO will be able to understand the health issues more than in the past.” He further cautioned that “we would need to be patient because the people there are not physicians, they are trade negotiators and diplomats. They need to understand and need to be more receptive to the issues being discussed.”
It was evident from his address that he was keen to be informed and in a position to discuss these issues, as these were points which he returned to repeatedly. He said for example that “Rigorous scientific tests that provide the kind of conclusive evidence that would be useful at the negotiating table, will be most appreciated by me and my colleagues.” More specifically, he asked that this expert group provide him and the WTO with updates as to the progress of its work.
He combined this with an appeal for the WTO and all of us to be inventive and concluded his address with the following remarks, “We need to be inventive. We need people to go on with their research and they need funds for their research. We need cheaper essential drugs for the poor people. There must be a compromise somewhere between funding arrangements and patent protection, which would compensate them in a way which would move pricing out of the way. I hope that through your deliberations, some proposals will be made available.”