Science in Society Archive

Canada Denies Visa for Africa's Chief Biosafety and Biodiversity Negotiator

Interference with international negotiations has plumbed new depths Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher from Ethiopia - Tewolde to his friends - African Union's chief spokesperson and negotiator for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was denied a visa to enter Canada for a crucial conference of the parties and preceding working group meeting, which will take place in Montreal between 25 May and 3 June. Canada is not a Party to the Biosafety Protocol. The meetings are expected to shape the controversial issues of identification (labelling) of genetically modified products, and liability and redress in case of damages caused.

These issues were left outstanding at the final show-down in the 3-way negotiations on the Cartagena Protocol in Montreal in 2000: the Canadian delegate, negotiating on behalf of the Miami Group (Canada, USA, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile); Tewolde, negotiating on behalf of the developing countries including China, (with the exception of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile); and the European Commission delegate negotiating on behalf of the European Union. An impassioned, historic speech by Tewolde broke the deadlock; and the European Commission delegate came down on the side of the Africans and developing countries. Agreement was reached, leaving identification, and liabilities and redress to be negotiated and settled soon after the Protocol comes into force. Five years later, however, these issues remain unresolved.

Tewolde is also the chief negotiator for the African Union on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Apart from attending the biosafety meetings in Montreal, he was also due to attend, on the same trip, equally important meetings on ITPGRFA in Lusaka, Zambia, and Oslo, Norway. In this treaty too, there is the unfinished business of negotiating a Material Transfer Agreement defining the terms under which research materials are exchanged between nations.

Tewolde's troubles began when he applied for a visa from the Canadian Embassy in Addis Ababa. They gave him "some highly complex forms", which he filled in, and the forms and his passport were sent to the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi by courier on 5 May 2005. But the Canadian High Commission sent him back "even more complicated additional forms to fill in," which he duly did, and immediately sent the forms back on 10 May 2005, together with clear information on all his travel plans. By then, he had already missed his meeting in Lusaka.

On 17 May, his passport was returned, without a Canadian visa. By then, he his flight for Oslo had departed without him.

It was only then that Tewolde wrote a public letter addressed to the delegates of both meetings (, revealing the full sequence of events that resulted in his absences.

"What a neat instrument of interfering with negotiations to which you are not a party, refusing an entry visa has become!" Tewolde declared. "But, now that I have been prevented from coming to Montreal, who knows which ones of you will be prevented next time?"

He is protesting to the government of Canada, and invites everyone to do the same. He also suggests moving the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) out of Canada, or at least refuse to hold any negotiation sessions in Canada. Both the Cartagena Protocol and the ITPGRFA are negotiated under the CBD.

To his fellow delegates to the Cartagena Protocol Conference of the Parties on Biosafety, he has this to say:

"I would like to urge you all Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to continue withstanding the ex-Miami Group and insisting on:
a) Clear labelling on all genetically engineered commodities;
b) State liability in cases of damage to the environment and/or human beings arising from products of genetic engineering;
c) Entitlement to full compensation in cases of damage to the environment and/or human beings;
d) Burden of proof of any product of genetic engineering not being the cause of damage resting on the country exporting that product;
e) Venue of litigation and enforcement of judgement being in the country where the damage occurred and not in the country of export.

Tewolde also urges all his African and other friends in the Material Transfer Agreement discussions of the ITPGRFA, "to ensure a common understanding on aiming at communally obtaining the benefits that the CBD entitles us, i.e.
a) Research on the genetic resources accessed to be carried out "with the full participation of" the Parties that need to develop their capacities ( Art. 15.6);
b) Research to be carried out in the territories of the Parties that need to develop their capacities (Art. 15.6);
c) Research results to be made available to Parties (Art.15.7);
d) Financial benefits to be shared with the Parties (Art.15.7);
e) Technologies generated to be transferred to the Parties (Art. 16);
f) The continuing right to revise the Material Transfer Agreement to be maintained by the Parties to make it consistent with developments in the CBD, especially with the outcome of the ongoing negotiations on access and benefit-sharing."

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is necessary for protecting the public from the hazards of GM products, while the ITPGRFA is the key to protecting indigenous genetic resources from being expropriated by corporations in the name of carrying out scientific research. The piracy and patenting of genetic resources is the greatest threat to food sovereignty and food security.

Tewolde is clearly not giving up. He ends with this message for his friends: "Of course, inspite of this present hindrance by the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi, I will try to get on the processes with you at a later stage."

Tewolde is also President of the Sustainable World Global Initiative recently launched by I-SIS and ISP

Please send your protest together with this report to:

Hon. Pierre Pettigrew, Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Email: Telephone (613) 995-8872 Fax: (613) 995-9926

Hon. Andy Mitchell ,Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Telephone:(613) 996-3434 Fax: (613) 991-2147

Hon. Stéphane Dion, Minister of the Environment,
Telephone: (613) 996-5789 Fax: (613) 996-6562

Hon. Hon. Joseph Volpe, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Telephone: (613) 992-6361 Fax: (613) 992-9791

Article first published 20/05/05

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