Human Rights Responsibilities of Pharmaceutical Companies in Relation to Access to Medicines

Authors

  • Joo-Young Lee,

    1. Recently completed doctoral thesis, “A Human Rights Framework for Intellectual Property and Access to Medicines,” explored the question of whether a patent system can be made to serve human rights in the context of access to medicines.
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  • Paul Hunt

    1. Professor in Law at Essex University (U.K.), Adjunct Professor at Waikato University (New Zealand), and advises WHO Assistant Director-General Dr. Flavia Bustreo on human rights issues.
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Abstract

Although access to medicines is a vital feature of the right to the highest attainable standard of health (“right to health”), almost two billion people lack access to essential medicines, leading to immense avoidable suffering. While the human rights responsibility to provide access to medicines lies mainly with States, pharmaceutical companies also have human rights responsibilities in relation to access to medicines. This article provides an introduction to these responsibilities. It briefly outlines the new UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and places the human rights responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies in this context. The authors draw from the work of the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, in particular the Human Rights Guidelines for Pharmaceutical Companies in Relation to Access to Medicines that he presented to the UN General Assembly in 2008, and his UN report on GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). While the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are general human rights standards applicable to all business entities, the Human Rights Guidelines for Pharmaceutical Companies consider the specific human rights responsibilities of one sector (pharmaceutical companies) in relation to one area of activity (access to medicines). The article signals the human rights responsibilities of all pharmaceutical companies, with particular attention to patent-holding pharmaceutical companies. Adopting a right-to-health “lens,” the article discusses GSK and accountability. The authors argue that human rights should shape pharmaceutical companies' policies, and provide standards in relation to which pharmaceutical companies could, and should, be held accountable. They conclude that it is now crucial to devise independent, accessible, transparent, and effective mechanisms to monitor pharmaceutical companies and hold them publicly accountable for their human rights responsibilities.

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