The U.S. State Department is investigating the shipment of computers and other sophisticated equipment to North Korea and Iran by way of an obscure United Nations agency, despite ongoing U.N. and U.S. sanctions against both governments aimed at blocking their development of nuclear weapons.
The broadening inquiry raises new concerns about the ways in which U.N. agencies have managed to sidestep restrictions that the world body expects the rest of the world to obey in halting the spread of sensitive technologies to nuclear-ambitious pariah regimes.
It also calls into question how much U.N. member states know about the activities of agencies they supposedly approve and supervise.
In this case, there are hints that the top official at the U.N. agency, the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, “has not yet been fully open” to the inquiries, according to a senior U.S. official.
The State Department probe came in the wake of Fox News revelations in April about the actions by WIPO in sending such sensitive equipment to North Korea by a complicated method that seemed designed to bypass U.N. Security Council sanctions against the country.
The shipments took place in late 2011 or early 2012, and were financed through the Beijing offices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
The WIPO actions also violated the sweeping restrictions of the equipment manufacturer, Hewlett-Packard, which forbids any HP equipment from being sent to such regimes.
The U.S. is a member of WIPO, yet apparently knew little or nothing about the controversial delivery of computers and sophisticated services. And within a month, the State Department discovered the problem went beyond North Korea, a spokesman said in response to questions from Fox News.
“The State Department first became aware of a WIPO development project in Iran in early May 2012, while conducting a review of all WIPO projects in countries under U.N. Security Council sanctions,” the spokesman said. “We have made several inquiries to the WIPO Secretariat and requested any related documentation.”
The spokesman added that State is now “working with like-minded countries” to press WIPO’s director general, Australia-born Francis Gurry, to “conduct an independent, external fact-finding exercise into past WIPO projects in countries under [Security Council] sanctions” presumably to discover if there are further unpleasant surprises in store, and also to “ensure future development projects are properly reviewed prior to being approved and implemented.”
Word of the new revelations first surfaced at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee last week, in which two California Democrats, Howard Berman and Zoe Lofgren, raised questions with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Teresa Stanek Rea about the transfers, which Berman declared “highly distressing and Lofgren called “an outrage.”
Rea confirmed the fact by replying that her department was “disappointed — to say the least” by the transfers and pointed to State as the investigating agency. She also hinted at director general Gurry’s limited response so far, and predicted that “more information will likely be forthcoming.”
A State Department spokesman provided additional hints in declaring that “we have had several conversations with director general Gurry” about reforming WIPO’s project development and implementation, and “will continue to work ... to put in place policies that provide greater accountability and transparency at WIPO.”
According to documents obtained by Fox News, WIPO only forwarded detailed information about the specifics of its shipments to its own in early June.
In the case of Iran, the WIPO computer shipment included 20 Hewlett-Packard Compaq desktop computers, now outmoded in the U.S. but which nonetheless still gave Iran’s Industrial Property Office significant computing power. In the case of North Korea, the equipment included both more sophisticated computers and data-storage servers.
As was the case in North Korea, WIPO experts made technical visits to Iran in advance of the shipments to scope out the project, help orchestrate financing and payment by the local office of UNDP in Tehran, and OK the deliveries, according to WIPO’s documentation.
Complicating any oversight of WIPO is that the agency essentially administers and supervises a variety of U.N.-sponsored treaties on trademarks and other aspects of intellectual property, including the worldwide patent system. But different countries have signed different treaties, and thus are only party to parts of the WIPO system, making supervision a challenge.
Iran, for example, most recently signed onto WIPO agreements that govern the international administration of trademarks and international protection of place-names for products (e.g. “Champaigne”). It signed onto an arrangement known as the Patent Cooperation Treaty in 1970, or nearly a decade before the Islamic revolution that installed the current bellicose regime.