U.S. sees no trade sanctions violations by U.N. agency

WASHINGTON/GENEVA Tue Jul 24, 2012 5:46pm EDT

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WASHINGTON/GENEVA (Reuters) - A preliminary U.S. assessment has concluded that the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) did not violate U.N. sanctions when it sent technical equipment to North Korea and Iran, the State Department said on Tuesday.

As two senior U.S. lawmakers accused the Geneva-based agency of stonewalling a U.S. probe into the transfers, the State Department indicated it was satisfied with WIPO's cooperation on the issue.

"Our own preliminary assessment - but we are still seeking more information from WIPO - is that there doesn't appear to have been a violation of U.N. sanctions," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

Nuland noted that the transfers had been referred to U.N. sanctions committees for a final determination and said the United States was seeking more information from WIPO as it investigated whether any U.S. laws had been violated.

Another hearing on the transfers to sanctioned countries is provisionally scheduled for August 1.

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry has said that the supplied equipment did not violate U.N. sanctions, although senior U.S. lawmakers have questioned this.

Geneva-based WIPO, a 185-member body that includes Iran and North Korea, has in the past provided member states with IT equipment including hardware and general office supplies.

The United States said earlier this month that it was reviewing WIPO's transfers after internal documents showed the organization had sent equipment worth around 50,000 Swiss francs ($52,500) to Iran and a shipment worth somewhat less to North Korea.

U.N. sanctions on Iran and North Korea are designed to curb the development of nuclear technology and prohibit the supply, sale or transfer of a range of materials and technology. Iran is also under much tougher U.S. and European Union trade embargoes.

BLOCKING TESTIMONY

On Tuesday, the ranking Republican and Democrats on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee accused Gurry of preventing two senior WIPO staff members from testifying before a planned committee hearing, forcing its cancellation.

The staff members asked to testify were James Pooley and Miranda Brown, a source familiar with the matter said.

"Director-General Gurry is obstructing this committee's investigation of WIPO's transfer of U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes under international sanctions — a transfer that occurred on his watch," Republican chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and ranking Democrat Howard Berman said in a statement.

A WIPO spokeswoman was not immediately available to comment on the statement. Gurry told Reuters late last week that he would allow "a properly competent person" to testify.

In the July 12 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed by over 40 lawmakers, Ros-Lehtinen said she was "appalled" by news of the WIPO transfers and said that her committee planned to launch its own probe into the incident.

Lawmakers have suggested that the United States freeze contributions to WIPO until they are satisfied it is cooperating, although this would likely have a limited impact on the U.N. agency, which relies on member state contributions for only 10 percent of its budget.

Matthew Parish, a partner in the Geneva office of Holman Fenwick Willan, who represents staff members at WIPO who have complained of harassment, abuse and victimization said the organization had a history of senior management abuses.

"Despite staff criticism and member state disapproval, WIPO is suspended in a world of its own. Its Director General clearly thinks he is above the law," he said.

Nuland stressed that the Obama administration remained concerned about the WIPO case and had urged the agency to implement better safeguards.

But she said the State Department did not believe WIPO was stonewalling on the issue, and listed "positive steps" the agency had recently taken including agreeing to independent external project auditing to prevent similar transfers in the future.

(Editing by Philip Barbara and Michael Roddy)

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