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UN rights expert criticises Swiss pressure in trade negotiations

The UN expert on the right to food warns that requiring countries to protect plant varieties could reduce their control over seeds. Keystone-SDA

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has accused European Free Trade Association countries, which includes Switzerland, of pressuring Thailand and Malaysia to align with an international agreement on plant products.

Switzerland and the other countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) have been negotiating a free trade agreement with Thailand and Malaysia for several years.

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In a letter to EFTA countries dated the end of March and released two months later, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri called for an end to “any potential violation of the right to food” in the trade deal discussions.

The EFTA countries are asking Thailand and Malaysia to comply with an act of the Geneva-based International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). A few years ago, several Swiss NGOs called on the Swiss federal government and other members to abandon these requirements, believing them to be a threat to developing countries’ room for maneuver in the food sector.

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This criticism is echoed by the Special Rapporteur, who does not speak on behalf of the UN but has a mandate with the UN Human Rights Council. He argues that Thailand and Malaysia, by approving EFTA’s requests, may not be able to guarantee their population’s right to food. It calls on Switzerland and other members to reconsider these requests in their current or future negotiations.

In their response, the EFTA countries said they can’t discuss ongoing negotiations. They do not consider approval of the UPOV act as a “prerequisite” for a free-trade agreement, but as a “proposal”, says Swiss Ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO) Erwin Bolliger, who currently chairs the EFTA group.

He points out that UPOV makes it possible, among other things, to guarantee the WTO’s obligation to protect plant varieties. He adds that EFTA has commissioned an evaluation of the impact of the negotiations with Thailand. A report should be published in the next few weeks.

Adapted from French by DeepL/jdp

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