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Affirm right to life over IPRs & TNC profits, say NGOs

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 5 Apr 2001 - - Leading international non-governmental organizations , active in human rights and development work, asked the United Nations and the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) Thursday to adopt a resolution affirming fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life, ranks over right of intellectual property and the exorbitant profits of the pharmaceutical transnational corporations.

The appeal by the NGOs to the UNHRC, now in session in Geneva, asked the Commission to adopt such a resolution and also demand that the United States withdraw its complaint at the World Trade Organization against Brazil, and ask the 39 pharmaceutical transnationals suing South Africa to renounce the legal process.

The NGO appeal came on a day when the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and UNAIDS Executive Director, Peter Piot, met with six pharmaceutical transnational corporations in Amsterdam, and issued a statement that intellectual property protection was “key to bringing forward new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics” urgently needed for the health of the world’s poorest people, and that “the UN fully supports the TRIPs agreement - including safeguards incorporated within it.”

The pharmaceutical transnational companies got the IPR negotiations into the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations, and got the TRIPs agreement, by presenting all those having a different view and perspective on global patent monopolies as “pirates”.

In the current debates, where public opinion and leading NGOs like Medcines Sans Frontier, Oxfam and others are spotlighting the unconscionable profits on essential medicines, the half a dozen transnational corporate pharmaceutical companies (in the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufactures Association) have been portraying themselves as “research-based pharmaceutical companies”.

Annan’s statement itself spoke of his meeting with “six leading multinational pharmaceutical companies,” but in issuing it the United Nations Press Release did not use Annan’s own description of the firms, but said it was issued after meeting with senior executives of six “leading Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies.”

Annan said that he had called for the meeting to encourage active participation of everyone in the right against AIDS, and the meeting had been held to discuss what further steps could be taken by the companies to make care and treatment more accessible for people with HIV/AIDS, adding: “The way we have dealt with the needs of the developing world in recent years is simply not adequate. We need a radically different approach, and all sectors of society must be involved.”

Praising the contributions of both the pharmaceutical companies and the NGOs, in fighting the AIDS epidemic, Annan said: “We need to combine incentive for research with access to medication for the poor.”

He then added: “Intellectual Property protection is key to bringing forward new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics urgently needed for the health of the world’s poorest people. The UN fully supports the TRIPs agreement - including the safeguards incorporated within it.”

The NGO statement, which has been some days in drawing up, challenged some of these arguments constantly being advanced by the pharmaceutical TNCs, the WTO secretariat and the WHO.

The NGOs placed their appeal for a resolution by the Human Rights Commission in the context of the US complaint at the WTO against Brazil, and the legal action in Pretoria against the South African government by 39 large TNCs.

The US complaint against Brazil at the WTO on 1 February, the NGOs said, was over Brazil’s law permitting manufacture of generic medicaments, among them those destined to combat AIDS, at prices considerably lower than those charge by TNCs, and thus enabling the poor in Brazil to have access to these medicaments.

At the same time on 5 March 2001, 39 large transnational pharmaceutical companies began legal action in Pretoria against a South African law which grants use of generic medicaments, particularly those used against AIDS. The legal proceedings by the US and the pharmaceutical TNCs against the Brazilian and South Africa laws, the NGOs noted, claim property rights of the medicaments in question as owners of the patents -in accordance with their interpretation of the TRIPs Agreement under the WTO.

The NGOs added: “One of the arguments used for giving priority to the protection of patents is that it motivates the enterprises to invest in research.”

But in considering this, four important factors must be taken into account, the NGOs said:

        A good part of the investments in research comes from the State, that is from the citizens payment of taxes, with the laboratories spending more on advertising than on research;

        The investments in research and development are very quickly recovered through the commercialization of the medicaments and the benefits derived from them.

        The scientific discoveries from which the pharmaceutical companies benefit are the fruit of the labour of scientists and technicians which is part of a historical process of accumulation of collective knowledge.

“The central question,” the NGOs said, “is to know whether the right of intellectual property can predominate over human rights, and particularly over the fundamental right to life, of a large part of the African population which is decimated by AIDS. It must be remembered also that there are other concerned populations on other continents.

“Some large laboratories have promised to lower the prices of medicaments used in the treatment of AIDS in African countries. But until today, they have not kept their promise and are quite obviously resisting the competition represented by selling these medicaments at a lower price.

“This the laboratory Pfizer has preferred to put a medicament, fluconazole, free of charge at the disposal of South African patients, rather than accept the competition concerning the same products, of Thai origin, which is 15 times cheaper.”

The NGOs said that in July 2000, during a special meeting, the UN Security Council declared that AIDS constituted a menace for peace and security in Africa. “To be consistent, the Security Council should adopt a resolution, binding on all States, that declares the medicaments destined to combat AIDS as common heritage.”

The NGO signatories asked the Commission on Human Rights to adopt at its current session a resolution “declaring that fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life, ranks over the right of intellectual property and demanding forthwith that the USA withdraw its complaint lodged with the WTO against Brazil, and that the 39 pharmaceutical TNCs renounce their legal process against South Africa.”

The signatories include: the World Alliance of YMCA, the Association of American Jurists, the International Association against Torture, CETIM (Europe-Third World Center), the World Confederation of Labour, the International Council of

Women, the World Peace Council, the General Arab Women Federation, the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women, Interfaith International, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Pax Romana, Union of Arab Jurists, the World Union of Catholic Women’s organizations. – SUNS4872

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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