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FTAs & TRIPs blocking access to life-saving medicines: UN Special Rapporteur on health

By Michael Cebon | June 16, 2009

Anand Grover is a lawyer who has appeared in several hundred cases in his native India representing and unholding the rights of people suffering from HIV/AIDS.  He established the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS in India.

Last year, he was also appointed by the Un to the position of “Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.  (Yes, that’s his actual job title!  Fantastic isn’t it – I wonder how he fits it on his business cards?)

Anyway, on June 2 Grover presented his annual report to to the UN Human Rights council. (You can also download his accompanying speech here – most of the quotes below are from the speech.)

His report is an outstanding, scathing attack on the effects of the WTO’s TRIPs agreement, and other bilateral & regional FTAs in denying ordinary people around the world access to life-saving medicines.

He starts with some worrying statistics:

Nearly 2 billion people lack access to essential medicines, and massive inequalities still remain regarding access to health services and medicines around the world, which is partly due to high costs, Improving access to medicines could save 10 million lives a year, 4 million in Africa and South East Asia.

Then he sheets home the blame:

TRIPS and FTAs have had an adverse impact on prices and availability of medicines by creating obstacles for States to comply with their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health. Similarly, the lack of capacity, together with external pressures from developed countries has created obstacles for developing countries and LDCs to use TRIPS flexibilities to promote access to medicines.

I am particularly concerned that the supply of generic medicines is now in doubt as countries that have been the generic producers have become TRIPS compliant and have had to introduce product patents.

Among a variety of evidence of how these agreements are blocking access to medicines, his report recounts a shocking story I heard in Thailand in 2007 when I was there filming Squeezed. The story is this:

Thailand also faced pressure following its attempts to lower prices of medicines through compulsory licensing. Between 2006 and 2007, Thailand issued compulsory licences for HIV and heart disease medicines in order to meet its obligations to provide universal access to medicines. In 2007, Thailand was placed on the Special 301 Priority Watch List. The position of the European Commission was also unwelcoming of the measures taken by Thailand. One of the affected companies withdrew seven pending applications for registration of new medicines in Thailand, thus effectively withholding them from the Thai market.

I always thought that this was extraordinary: a pharmaceutical company withholding its medicines from a market that’s in need (and willing to pay!) in “punishment” for a government taking steps to protect the health of its citizens!

Anyway, the impacts of TRIPs and the TRIPs+ provisions of mnay FTA are much wider – it’s worth having a look at the report to see just how wide.

Unforunately the recommendations which accompany the report are neccesarily conservative (nothing inthere about abolishing TRIPs altogether, I’m afraid.)  But it does recommend against TRIPs+ provisions for developing countries (like the ones that Australia includes in its FTAs):

Developing countries and LDCs should not introduce TRIPS-plus standards in their national laws. Developed countries should not encourage developing countries and LDCs to enter into TRIPS-plus FTAs and should be mindful of actions which may infringe upon the right to health.

Which is a start.

Topics: Australian Trade Policy, Bilateral FTAs, European Trade Policy, Globalisation & Development, Globalisation & Health, US Trade Policy, WTO | Comments Off

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