By Emma Farge
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday it was reviewing a U.N. agency's dealings with sanctioned countries such as Iran after documents showed the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) had supplied IT equipment to the Islamic Republic.
The Geneva-based WIPO, a 185-member body that includes Iran, sent IT equipment to Iranian authorities, according to correspondence between WIPO and the Iranian agency dealing with intellectual property, dated August 2010 and provided to Reuters by a source close to WIPO.
U.N. sanctions passed in 2008 to curb the development of Iran's disputed nuclear program 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.
"We have made several inquiries to the WIPO Secretariat and requested any related documentation. We have received several project documents and are in the process of reviewing them," said David Kennedy, spokesman for the U.S. Mission in Geneva.
"We are also working with like-minded countries to urge (WIPO) Director General (Francis) Gurry to conduct an independent, external investigation into past WIPO projects in countries under U.N. Security Council sanctions," he added.
WIPO's staff association has also complained internally that the organization's assistance to North Korea may be violating two U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In a letter to the head of WIPO's inspection unit, the staff association said WIPO's help with a "controlled intranet system" for North Korea raised ethical concerns, since it would not be necessary if North Korea allowed its citizens to access the Internet.
Gurry, an Australian who has headed the agency since 2008, said WIPO had sent some equipment to sanctioned countries like North Korea, but denied that the transfers represented a breach of U.N. sanctions.
"We have a program for improving office efficiency in the procurement of patents and trademarks and other intellectual property ... which we are doing in over 80 countries around the world. Part of that program involves assistance with software and very limited assistance with hardware," Gurry told Reuters.
"It is our very strong belief that these are not in violation of any U.N. sanctions," he added.
Another internal WIPO document showed that the hardware transfer to Iran was valued at around 50,000 Swiss francs ($52,500). Gurry confirmed that some IT equipment had been transferred to North Korea, adding that it amounted to "less than 50,000 francs".
Gurry said WIPO would in future seek prior authorization from the U.N. Security Council's sanctions committees before working with countries under sanctions.
Matthew Parish, partner in the Geneva office of law firm Holman Fenwick Willan, said the transfers to Iran might violate both U.N. and European Union sanctions.
"If it (the equipment) could have a military use, then it may fall foul of international prohibitions on dual-use technologies, as well as the absolute U.S. economic embargo," Parish told Reuters.
"At the very least it is acutely politically embarrassing. Private corporations are avoiding exposure to Iran because of the bad publicity and for WIPO to try to rely on its legal immunities to escape political scrutiny seems brave," he added.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)