It is not often we see human rights and pharmaceutical companies in the same sentence except with the word “breach” somewhere in between. So it is fascinating to note that a UN special rapporteur has just drafted “Human Rights Guidelines for Pharmaceutical Companies in relation to Access to Medicines”.

And these guidelines are potentially revolutionary. For example the first point reads that each “company’s corporate mission statement should expressly recognise the importance of human rights generally, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health in particular, in relation to the strategies, policies, programmes, projects and activities of the company.” And it goes on in the same vein.

For example, “the company should: give particular attention to disadvantaged individuals and communities, such as those living in poverty; give particular attention to gender-related issues; give particular attention to the needs of children; give particular attention to the very poorest in all markets; be transparent; encourage and facilitate the participation of all stakeholders, including disadvantaged individuals and communities.”

Pharmaceutical companies giving “particular attention to the very poorest in all markets”? They should “be transparent”? No, these guidelines are not a joke. Comments on the draft are to be made by the end of the year. It will be fascinating to see how much altered the draft will be in the wake of comments received.

Pharmaceutical companies’ fax machines will be running hot. If these human rights guidelines were ever to be implemented, life would change so much for so many people in some very poor countries. Accessible (read cheap) medicines can be life savers in the developing world. Too often however they have been beyond the financial reach of poor people.

Life would also change so much for just a few people in some very rich companies. The top executives and shareholders of the big pharmaceutical companies might have to pull in their belts just a little. Their attitudes would need to change a lot more.

What’s the betting on who wins in this battle between human rights and profits?

Peter Fray

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