The Human Rights Council adopted by consensus two important resolutions reaffirming that access to medicines and enhancing capacity building in public health are fundamental elements for achieving the full realization of the right to health, write Adriano José Timossi and Viviana Muñoz-Tellez.
By Adriano José Timossi and Viviana Muñoz-Tellez
The 32nd session of the Human Rights Council was held in June/July in Geneva. In what constitutes a historic event for the health and public rights agenda, two resolutions were adopted by consensus.
The draft resolution 32/L.23 entitled “Access to medicines in the context of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” was tabled by Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa and Thailand. The resolution was also supported by 72 cosponsors.
As one of main outcomes, the resolution decided to convene at its thirty-fourth session, a panel discussion to exchange views on good practices and key challenges relevant to access to medicines as one of the fundamental elements of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, taking into account all relevant reports, and that the discussion shall be fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
This panel will be an opportunity also to debate the outcomes of the work of the High Level Panel established by the UN Secretary General which outcomes are to be presented in the coming months. In adopting this resolution by consensus, Member States of the Human Rights Council have agreed to advance access to medicines as a key priority in the context of progressive realization of the right to health.
During the past 10 years the Human Rights Council has considered the issue of access to medicines through different initiatives in resolutions and reports. The last resolution 23/14 in 2013 was adopted by a vote of 31 in favour to 0 against, with 16 abstentions. The current approval by consensus brings back a good spirit of work of the Human Rights Council on this issue which contributes to advance the agenda on access to medicines.
It is also a timely moment to bring back the issue to the Council, taking into account recent developments in other fora and the need for continued debate and discussion on best practices to uphold the primacy of human rights, including the right to health, over trade, intellectual property rights and other economic agreements and interests. Importantly, the resolution reaffirms the ability of countries to use the flexibilities available under the WTO agreement on trade related aspects of intellectual property rights to promote access to medicines, in recognition that patents can be used to set high prices for medicines.
A new momentum to promote access to medicines has been created with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goal 3 on Health and the 2015 edition of the Social Forum on “Access to medicines in the context of the right to health”. It also builds upon these recent developments and previous resolutions adopted at the Council and the ongoing work of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and recently established UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.
The resolution reaffirms the need for access to affordable, safe, efficacious and quality medicines for all as a primary human right and underscores that improving such access could save millions of lives every year. The resolution also calls upon Member States and other stakeholders to create favourable conditions at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the full and effective enjoyment of the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
The resolution also recalled that the Doha Ministerial Declaration on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and Public Health confirms that the Agreement does not and should not prevent members of the World Trade Organization from taking measures to protect public health. It also called upon States to promote access to medicines for all, including through the use, to the full, of the provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights which provide flexibility for that purpose, recognizing that the protection of intellectual property is important for the development of new medicines, as well as the concerns about its effects on prices.
Ambassador Regina Maria Cordeiro Dunlop of the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations in Geneva introduced the draft resolution on behalf of the core group. Amb. Dunlop recalled that for millions of people throughout the world the full enjoyment of the human right to health still remains an elusive goal. According to the WHO, at least one third of the world’s population has no regular access to medicines. No effort should be spared to realize this right for all. Health is a fundamental human right, indispensable to the enjoyment of many other human rights and necessary for living a life in dignity.
Amb. Dunlop also explained that the resolution aimed at reaffirming access to medicines as a fundamental element in the realization of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and noted the support and engagement of all delegations during the informal consultations and constructive contributions that helped to pave the way toward a common understanding on access to medicines as a fundamental element of the right to health.
Ambassador Ajit Kumar, Permanent Representative of India to the UN in Geneva, also made a statement as a member of the core group of the resolution on access to medicines. Amb. Kumar noted that challenges of access to medicines are no longer limited to developing countries or to the so-called neglected diseases. It is effecting people in the global North as well, stretching the health budgets of all governments and impacting treatment to common diseases like hepatitis and cancer.
Amb. Kumar also noted that the existing global framework does not allow the fruits of medical innovation to be equitably shared, in particular to those who are in most need of them, and the innovation models that thrive on the current system have failed to address the health R&D needs of developing countries. This is evident from the lack of any new medicines and vaccines for long known infectious diseases like TB and Malaria, which continue to take a huge public health toll.
Amb. Kumar further noted that the Human Rights Council has made some seminal contributions in recognizing access to medicines as a fundamental component of the right to health. A number of Council resolutions have reaffirmed the right of Member States to give primacy to public health over trade and intellectual property considerations as enshrined in the Doha Declaration on Public Health and TRIPS Agreement. Despite this, the barriers to the full use of TRIPS flexibilities have only increased. The trend to impose TRIPS plus standards further threatens the full realization of the right to health of millions of people by placing further obstacles to access to medicines.
Amb. Kumar stated that there is a need to once again place the human rights dimensions of access to medicines at the centre of efforts to create favorable conditions at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the full realization of the right to health and the health related goals of Agenda 2030. The current draft resolution builds on the previous Council resolutions on the topic.
Amb. Kumar noted that the resolution appreciates the establishment of the High Level Panel on Access to Medicines by the UN Secretary General with the mandate to address policy incoherence in public health, trade, the justifiable rights of inventors and human rights in the context of access to medicines and innovation, and noted that the Office of the High Commissioner has participated actively in the expert advisory group supporting the High Level Panel. Accordingly, Amb. Kumar stated that it would be a timely opportunity for the Council to take into account recent developments and have a constructive discussion on how Member States and other stakeholders can overcome some of the persistent barriers to access to medicines, and achieve the much needed policy coherence in the area of human rights, intellectual property, trade and investment policies by reaffirming the importance of human rights when considering access to medicines.
A second draft resolution 32/L.24 entitled “Promoting the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health through enhancing capacity-building in public health” was also adopted by consensus. It recognizes the need for strengthening capacity building for public health and was introduced by China with numerous co-sponsors.
The resolution reaffirms that strengthening public health is critical to the development of all Member States, and that economic and social development are enhanced through measures that strengthen capacity-building in public health, including training, recruitment and retention of sufficient public health personnel, and systems of prevention of and immunization against infectious diseases.
The resolution also recognizes the importance of substantially increasing health financing and the recruitment, development, training and retention of the health workforce in developing countries, especially in least developed countries, small island developing States and landlocked developing countries.
The resolution provides that a panel discussion will be held with the participation of States, relevant United Nations agencies, funds and programmes, academics and experts and non-governmental organizations, with the objective of exchanging experiences and practices on realizing the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health by enhancing capacity-building in public health. The High Commissioner is tasked to prepare a summary report on the panel discussion and to submit it to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-sixth session.
Both resolutions also welcomed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its Goal 3, which highlights the importance of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, and recalled in that regard the adoption on 28 May 2016 by the World Health Assembly of its resolution WHA69.15 entitled “Health in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Member States also welcomed efforts of the World Health Organization, in cooperation with Member States, in enhancing capacity-building in global public health and in meeting the targets specified in Sustainable Development Goal 3.
The two resolutions adopted by consensus comes at a good time when the celebrations of the 30thAnniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development are taking place, a declaration in which the right to health is recognized as well as access to medicines and public health as key elements for realizing the Right to Development.
Adriano José Timossi is Senior Programme Officer of the Global Governance for Development Programme (GGDP) and Viviana Muñoz-Tellez is the Programme Coordinator of the Development, Innovation and Intellectual Property Programme (DIIP) of the South Centre.