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CORPORATE RIGHTS TO PREVAIL OVER PUBLIC HEALTH?

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 28 June 2000 -- As the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) moved into its third day, the US, EC and other industrialized countries left little doubt that in a clash between corporate property rights and public health or human rights, corporate rights must prevail.

And while the US, EC and others in the industrial world strive hard to promote democratic domestic governance in countries to create an enabling environment for social development, they flatly rejected any such concepts in relation to the international financial institutions.

The 24th UNGASS, also called “Copenhagen+5”, is reviewing the implementation of the declaration and commitments entered into by countries at the level of heads of state/government at the World Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995, and considering measures to fulfil those commitments.

While the plenary is hearing speeches from leaders of governments (some 19 countries, mostly from Africa, are here at level of heads of governments, while others are represented by ministers or other high level officials and dignitaries), the Committee of the Whole (COW) and its three working groups are negotiating the final texts to be adopted.

And the clash between corporate rights and public health came in the working group 2 of the COW where the Group of 77 introduced a formulation for excluding from patentability essential and life-saving medicines to ensure access of these medicines at affordable prices.

The G77 proposal would also recognize that intellectual property rights (IPRs) under the TRIPs Agreement should not take precedence over other human rights to highest attainable standards of health care that have been agreed to in many international human rights and other instruments or over the ethical responsibility to provide life-saving medicines at affordable costs to developing countries and people living in poverty.

The US, EU, Canada, Japan and Australia vehemently opposed these proposals. The EU, in opposing the proposal, recommended another text which would “acknowledge the importance” of IPRs to promote further research on key drugs, while recognizing the ‘flexibility inherent’ in TRIPs for access to drugs for developing countries including through exceptions to rights conferred by a patent.

In opposing the G77 proposal, the US told the working group that the proposal introduced concepts such as human rights and other technical matters that required further consultation with their capitals and experts before they could be considered.

Canada called for the deletion of the proposal.

In response, South Africa said “when you are going to lose 25% of your productive work force due to HIV/AIDS, you cannot be so blase with your comments.” Essential drugs, South Africa said, are critical to deal with HIV/AIDS and deleting the proposal would be a major flaw.

The chairman suggested that the two texts be circulated to delegations, to enable them to consult their capitals, and taken up on Wednesday through a ‘facilitation process’.

The EU, supported by other industrialized countries, proposed language, in terms of national policies to create an enabling environment for social development, measures to ensure national and local institutions are democratic, effective, transparent and responsible.

However, when the Group of 77 and China, which earlier agreed to language for implementing commitments to create an economic, political, social, cultural and legal environment that encourages social development, proposed the same objectives and for enabling developing countries full and effective participation in decision-making in international financial institutions, this was rejected.

The formulation drafted by the G-77 maintains that such full and effective participation should be achieved through reforming and democratising these institutions, thus creating greater transparency and a balance of accounts in their administration and actions.

The debate for the most part refers to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, two institutions that are seen to have an elitist governance, based on the one-dollar-one-vote principle in the quotas of countries, that ensures control by those countries with the greatest assets.

In blocking the G-77 proposal, the United States made clear it would not accept any reference whatsoever about the democratisation of international financial institutions.

The G77 and China also put forward proposals in the working group (in relation to the creation of an enabling environment for social development) to encourage corporate social responsibility so that corporate behaviour and activities would be in accord with national laws and development goals.

The champions of democracy - Canada, the EU, Japan and the US - stoutly opposed such proposals. And the US would have nothing to do either with the idea that the UN Commission on Social Development should formulate guidelines to promote corporate social responsibility.

And New Zealand, Switzerland and the EU came out strongly in favour of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Global Compact with Corporations.

A recent study of the UN Institute for Research and Social Development (UNRISD), brought out that such partnerships with big business and ‘voluntary, self-policed guidelines’ weaken the key drivers of corporate responsibility - governments and intergovernmental regulations.

The meetings of the working groups are in private, though not as private or ‘informal’ as the meetings and negotiations at the WTO.  Nevertheless it has some curious aspects.

While several NGO representatives are present, the media is excluded. But those writing for and producing the ‘Earth Negotiations Bulletin’, a non-official daily report (summary record) of the meetings, whose writers have ‘privileged access’, enabling them to be inside meetings and report them (as they do at other such conferences).

This bulletin is produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an operation funded among others by the governments or the official institutions of Canada, Netherlands, USA, UK, Switzerland, EC, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Australia, and BP Amoco. The bulletin acknowledges logistical support for the operation by the UN Office in Geneva and the UN’s Department of Economics and Social Affairs Secretariat.

Perhaps the UN officials concerned should ‘dust up’ and read the records of the General Assembly’s fifth committee, way back in the 1950s, which laid out the guidelines on information policy.

And while these are private meetings where governments ‘negotiate’ language, the cell phones in use inside the rooms, and conversations overheard by those in nearby seats leave little room for doubt that many key Northern delegations use them to consult their corporate private sector lobbyists present in Geneva, but whose visible presence in the corridors or inside rooms may prove embarrassing, particularly when enthusiasts of individual human rights balk at their extension to health and medicines, thus cutting into corporate profits and greed.

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

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