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Inter Press Service
HEALTH: UN Rights Commission Favours Free Access to Medications
Gustavo Capdevila
April 23, 2001
GENEVA, Apr 23 (IPS) - Brazil has obtained international support for its policy ensuring free access to the latest medications for its citizens living with HIV/AIDS, a measure sharply challenged by the United States.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, reaching the end of this year's six-week session, approved a resolution presented by Brazil recognising access to HIV/AIDS medications as basic to the full realisation of the individual's right to physical and mental health.

The Brazilian initiative was adopted with 52 of the 53 members of the UN's maximum human rights body voting in favour, the sole abstention being the United States.

The decision of the UN comes on top of a series of actions and declarations that have enlivened the international debate in recent weeks about the validity of pharmaceutical patents that prevent individuals who are ill and poor from obtaining low-cost drugs.

One of the prominent episodes of this controversy took place last week in South Africa when 39 transnational pharmaceutical corporations, under heavy pressure from the international community, decided to withdraw their lawsuit against the country for its legislation that guarantees low-cost medicines for the population, especially for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Another case occurred in February when the United States convinced the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to establish a special panel in the dispute settlement process to rule if Brazilian laws on inexpensive drugs violate multilateral treaties.

But the related legal proceedings at the WTO have ground to a halt because the United States has not pushed for the designation of the three members to the panel.

In diplomatic circles here, it is widely held that Washington's representatives are waiting for the controversy on pharmaceutical patents to dissipate before pushing the WTO Secretariat to name the panel members.

The decision taken by the UN Commission on Human Rights benefits Brazil, according to diplomatic sources, because it urges countries to establish policies to promote the availability of pharmaceuticals and medical technologies to treat pandemics such as HIV/AIDS.

The Brazilian representative had asked the UN Commission to establish unequivocal principles and objectives to guide governments' national and international actions in the pharmaceutical arena.

The ambassador from Norway stated that the question of access to low-cost medications goes beyond HIV/AIDS and extends to all diseases.

''Access to drugs carries the features of what we now refer to as 'global public goods.' Yet drugs are largely manufactured and marketed as 'global private goods' by large multinational companies,'' said the Norwegian delegate.

In the resolution, the UN Commission calls upon states, at the international level, to take steps to facilitate, wherever possible, access in other countries to essential preventive, curative or palliative pharmaceuticals or medical technologies used to treat pandemics such as HIV/AIDS.

Another paragraph of the text appeals to industrialised countries in particular to continue to assist developing countries in their fight against HIV/AIDS through financial and technical support, as well as training of personnel.

The United States, the only abstention in the vote, stressed its commitment to the fight against AIDS and pointed to its history in that area, which includes efforts to create UNAIDS, the UN's joint programme dedicated to fighting the deadly disease.

US ambassador George Moose commented that the illness requires something more than simply a medical response.

Moose said the fight against HIV/AIDS calls for a multi- dimensional approach, including efforts in prevention, treatment and care, in addition to medical responses through the use of pharmaceuticals.

''That effort is not aided by superficial discussions in the Commission on Human Rights, which lacks the expertise to deal seriously with the issue,'' said the US diplomat.

The resolution approved by the UN Commission indicates that countries must adopt policies on AIDS-fighting drugs that conform to the applicable international laws, especially those global accords signed by the countries.

That paragraph refers to the provisions of the WTO's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) that regulate pharmaceutical patents. In that respect, Moose predicted the resolution would be interpreted by many as casting doubt upon multilateral accords intended to protect intellectual property rights.

The US diplomat agreed with the arguments put forth by the pharmaceutical transnationals that ''the only way we are going to encourage the investment that is needed to develop new drugs is by protecting intellectual property rights.''

The effects on human health of international regulations on protecting medical patents is an item on the agenda for discussion in May at the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation, and in June by the WTO.



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