Perspectives from Papua New Guinea

The Papua new Guinea Institute of Medical Research is a statutory body of the Papua New Guinea government, set up to conduct research on diseases and health problems relevant to the people of Papua New Guinea. It was established in 1968 but almost became defunct at National Independence in 1975. In the last 20 years it has built up programs in research on pneumonia, malaria, typhoid, sexually transmitted disease, filariasis, malnutrition, and a number of other diseases and health problems. Its research findings and publications have had an influence on the practice of tropical medicine far beyond Papua New Guinea. It has five branches and a staff of 230, all but 16 of whom are Papua New Guinean. It has sophisticated laboratories with the latest equipment and technology, yet most of its studies are firmly based in Papua New Guinean communities, rural and urban. Its work has placed particular value on the problems of women, children and remote communities. It has long-established procedures for obtaining informed consent from communities and individuals taking part in its research studies. Its activities are subject to the guidance of the Institute's Council and the ethical and scientific reviews by the national Medical Research Advisory Committee.

The Medical Research Advisory Committee of Papua New Guinea was first established in 1962 and was re-established in 1972. Its activities have now been continuous since 1977. It is a resource committee for all medical and health-related research in Papua New Guinea, responsible to the Minister for Health. It provides national ethical and scientific review for all health-related research. It is the Institutional Ethical Committee for the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. Its membership has a wide representation from the non-medical community. Its establishment and continuous function predates, by many years, the establishment of such ethical committee in other countries.

The Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research and the Medical Research Advisory Committee of Papua New Guinea are natural allies of any organization seeking to protect the rights of remote indigenous people. However, all actions to achieve such protection must be based on sound ethical principles, a commitment to truth and the involvement, whenever possible, of the indigenous people themselves. All actions based simply on ideology, which distort the truth for preconceived ends and which allow the people themselves no voice, are to be abhorred.

In August 1996 a seminar-workshop will be held at the University of Papua New Guinea to discuss the issues of intellectual, biological, and cultural property rights and to begin the process of establishing a national policy for Papua New Guinea on these issues. The planning group have formulated the following question to be addressed. 1. Should we demand international recognition for intellectual property rights over knowledge, information, inventions, and techniques developed nationally? 2. Should we demand international recognition for biological property rights over biological genetic information and biological products discovered within national boundaries? 3. Should we demand international recognition for cultural property rights over human group practices and productions (including art, literature, drama, dance, and music) which derive from national cultures? 4. Should we allow individuals to own patents on biological or cultural "property" which has a collective or community origin? 5. If so, how can we safeguard under these circumstances the rights of the wider human group and the protection of biological species and the environment from over-exploitation by individuals? 6. If not so, how do we ensure the open flow and exchange of biological and cultural information and exploitation of this information for the benefit of all, at the same time providing sufficient economic reward to the people among whom this information originated? 7. Can we achieve international recognition for intellectual, biological, and cultural rights by international agreement based on customary practice and law rather than patent law? 8. Are we prepared to accept the concept of legally valid ecological rights as well as human rights (i.e., that species other then Homo sapiens and portions of the earth's environment should have rights which are independent of and possibly in conflict with human rights, and that such ecological rights are given legal standing)? 9. If so, do we believe that such a concept can be made to work in an international context?

These issues are complex and unresolved. What is certain is that solutions will have to be sought in a creative way, not based on rigid legalistic formulae. Open and dialectic negotiation, mediation, customary law, and customary approaches to solving problems and resolving conflict over individual and group rights need to be considered and investigated. Philosophical questions over the range of rights to be acknowledged need to be raised. Policy statements and international agreements must be based on clearly formulated, if not always agreed upon, philosophies.

In the meantime, decisions must be based on existing international agreements and existing national laws. To achieve a philosophically acceptable outcome in any particular case may require compromises and difficult choices. The "Hagahai blood case" provides a good example of such a dilemma. Reluctance to agree to the patenting of biological information became irrelevant when the decision to patent was already taken, based on policies and patent laws established in the United States. The overriding principle became that of ensuring benefit to the people from the country of origin. The decision to sign or not to sign then became clear: sign on behalf of the Hagahai. This was made in good faith, and made clear from the beginning. The Hagahai were informed, and approved. This assignment of benefit to the Hagahai people was also consonant with the policy of the National Institute of Health on the entitlement of the people from the country of origin over any new discovery or "invention." No worse case could be found to bring to the International Court in The Hague on a charge of exploitation of indigenous people. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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