Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer
Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity
413, Saint Jacques Street, suite 800 Montreal QC H2Y 1N9 Canada
4 December 2017
Dear Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer
Re: Addressing conflict of interest in the CBD, its Protocols and subsidiary bodies
We are writing to alert you to matters that have recently come to light through freedom of information requests, and that require an urgent response.
We are concerned that the integrity of the Open-ended Online Forum on Synthetic Biology, and consequently the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Synthetic Biology, may have been compromised by external actors who seek to influence the discussions on gene drives. In particular:
- A private agriculture and biotechnology PR firm called Emerging Ag recruited at least 65 people to participate in the Online Forum as independent experts, when Emerging Ag had been paid $1.6 million for a project that included an objective of co-ordinating these participants and involved it issuing them with almost daily advice on how to influence the discussion in line with its strategy.
- There is also evidence of appointees to associated CBD processes having relevant financial interests through the institutions they represent that have not been declared in CBD forums.
This activity has the potential to prejudice outcomes of the AHTEG and undermine the spirit of Decision XIII/17 on Synthetic Biology, particularly paragraph 2 that expressly applies to some living modified organisms containing gene drives. We respectfully call on you to urgently instate a process across the CBD and its subsidiary bodies that will ensure robust and consistent procedures for declaration of interest and conflict of interest. This process should include full disclosure of any potential or existing conflict of interest and we request that at least this standard be applied immediately to the AHTEGs and online discussion forums.
We note that the rules of procedure of both the Compliance Committees of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization address conflict of interest. In addition, the Guidelines for the Roster of Biosafety Experts places obligations on individuals on the roster to disclose interests and decline “any assignment where an assignment may raise a real or perceived conflict of interest.”
We further note that pursuant to Decision BS-VII/4, the Roster of Biosafety Experts was expanded to include experts nominated by Parties and other Governments to participate in ad hoc technical expert groups and networks under the Cartagena Protocol. This demonstrates a clear rationale for disclosure and conflict of interest procedures to apply also to the AHTEGs.
We believe that a framework for addressing disclosure and conflict of interest in the CBD and its subsidiary bodies should include the following elements:
- A definition of conflict of interest for the purposes of the implementation of such a framework;
- A procedure to require disclosure of interests by an actor seeking to hold a decision making position, in advance of appointment, and an active register of interests being kept during the term of their appointment;
- A procedure to ensure full disclosure of any potential or existing conflict of interest by any person participating in CBD processes;
- A procedure to identify, avoid and manage conflicts of interest between the interests of a non-Party observer (particularly business, commercial and financial interests) and the objective, purpose and principles of the Convention;
- A procedure to identify, avoid and manage other risks, such as undue influence of business, commercial and financial interests, associated with participation of non-Party observers;
- A set of provisions to ensure the implementation of due diligence, transparency and accountability of all the actors involved in such participation, with a view to safeguarding the integrity of the CBD;
- A mechanism for the monitoring and review of the implementation of the framework itself.
We believe that the events cited above demand a strong response from the CBD to demonstrate that it is committed to upholding the highest standards of transparency and integrity. We would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you during SBSTTA-21, where several of us would be present, to discuss these issues and assist you as appropriate in taking the lead on disclosure and conflict of interest standards.
Thank you for your kind consideration.
African Centre for Biodiversity
Corporate Europe Observatory
Friends of the Earth U.S.
Heinrich Boell Foundation
Sustainability Council of New Zealand
Third World Network
- The Gene Drive Files: a set of documents obtained under Freedom of Information requests and collectively posted on the Synbiowatch website on 4 December 2017: http://genedrivefiles.synbiowatch.org
- Decision BS-II/1. Rules of procedure for meetings of the Compliance Committee:
Each member of the Committee shall, with respect to any matter that is under consideration by the Committee, avoid direct or indirect conflicts of interest. Where a member finds himself or herself faced with a direct or indirect conflict of interest, that member shall bring the issue to the attention of the Committee before consideration of that particular matter. The concerned member shall not participate in the elaboration and adoption of a recommendation of the Committee in relation to that matter.
- Decision NP-2/3. Report of the Compliance Committee (Article 30):
1. Each member of the Committee and the indigenous peoples and local community observers shall, with respect to any matter that is under consideration by the Committee, avoid conflicts of interest. Where a member or indigenous peoples and local community observer finds himself or herself faced with a conflict of interest, that member or indigenous peoples and local community observer shall bring the issue to the attention of the Committee before consideration of that particular matter. The member or indigenous peoples and local community observer concerned shall not participate in the deliberations and the taking of decisions by the Committee in relation to that matter.
2. A “conflict of interest” refers to any current interest that could:
(a) Significantly impair the individual’s objectivity as a Committee member or indigenous peoples and local community observer;
(b) Create an unfair advantage for any person or organization.
- Decision BS-IV/4. Roster of biosafety experts:
GUIDELINES FOR THE ROSTER OF BIOSAFETY EXPERTS
4. Declining to act if there is a real or perceived conflict of interest
22. Experts should decline any assignment where an assignment may raise a real or perceived conflict of interest. Prior to undertaking any assignment through the roster or being put forward on a secretariat shortlist, each roster member will complete a conflict of interest declaration, indicating if they have any personal, institutional or other professional interests or arrangements that would create a conflict of interest or that a reasonable person might perceive as creating a conflict.
23. If the declaration raises concerns, the Secretariat or Party concerned may seek further information from the expert. If legitimate concerns remain, it is recommended that any judgments as to whether a conflict exists should err on the side of caution, consistent with maintaining the highest level of credibility of the roster process.
- Some elements adapted from: Like Minded Developing Countries, ‘LMDC Submission for the In-Session Workshop on Opportunities to Further Enhance the Effective Engagement of non-Party Stakeholders at UNFCCC SBI 46’, submission to the UNFCCC, 27 April 2017.