This article was original published in the Health and Human Rights Journal. Read it there, or below:
Full disclosure: initially, I was not very excited about the announcement of the convening of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines. Every human rights advocate has learned to approach with restraint the news of yet another august group convening to review a crisis.
Such groups can be counted on to issue a wonderful report with promising language. But, almost inevitably, the gauzy, aspirational recommendations in that report are promptly ignored. Worse, in the case of access to medicines, noble but unenforceable calls for reform are reliably bulldozed over by binding trade agreements that elevate corporate profits over human rights.
Further, in the case of the UN and its Secretary General, the conveners of this panel, there is a disturbing track record of deeds not matching words. The UN’s shameful non-response to its culpability in triggering the devastating 2010 Haitian cholera epidemic defies its many pledges to respect human rights, including the right to health.
Perhaps in anticipation of skeptical reactions like mine, the titles of these groups sometimes try a bit too hard to evoke confidence. “The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines.” I am never clear on the hierarchy involved: Is “high-level” a ranking above “blue-ribbon?” Is a panel more impactful than a commission, and where does a study group fall on that continuum? It can be a challenge to resist an eye-roll.
All that said, I am putting my cynicism aside. After all, human rights history shows us that talk about a right usually goes on for decades, if not generations, before it becomes an enforceable reality. Plenty of blue-ribbon panels were convened and reports written along the path to overcoming slavery and apartheid and colonialism–even if it took in-the-street/in-your-face protests, boycotts, and resistance to put those movements over the top.
And this particular panel’s membership is impressive: notably, it includes Yusuf Hamied, chair of the generic drug manufacturer Cipla, and one of the heroes of the historically successful HIV/AIDS treatment movement. Hamied and Cipla’s 2001 offer of antiretrovirals at $1/day was one of the final blows that toppled the Big Pharma patent blockade on access to HIV/AIDS medicines, thereby rescuing millions from death because they could not afford corporate prices.
There are politicians and a Big Pharma CEO on the panel, too, but other members include Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima and veteran Canadian diplomat and HIV/AIDS treatment activist Stephen Lewis. Lewis has seen such panels come and go without much impact, but he thinks this time may be different. “Access to medicines has become one of humankind’s greatest crises, perhaps right behind climate change,” he told me as part of an interview in December. “This has become a problem for the developed world alongside the developing world, and I think that means great changes are coming.”
If the early press releases coming from the panel are any indication, this group is willing to confront the brutal core of this crisis: people are dying because our current system shackles medicine access to profit-seeking patents. The panel has already pointed out that millions die each year from AIDS, TB, hepatitis C, and non-communicable diseases, all due to lack of access to medicine that would have saved their lives. Its press releases quote Michael Kirby, panel member and former justice of Australia’s High Court, as saying the market alone cannot be trusted to provide life-saving medicines.
In speaking about the panel, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has referenced the tragedy of the Ebola pandemic, which killed 11,000-plus people. For the panel, the lesson from that pandemic is cruelly instructive: vaccines and treatments for Ebola, promising in health impact but considered to be unprofitable by the corporate medicine industry, languished in preclinical development. Meanwhile, drugs to treat erectile dysfunction and eliminate facial wrinkles were rushed to market.
The panel has a fast timeline—it plans to offer its report to the Secretary-General in June. And the world’s top access to medicines activists are expected to respond to its call for contributions. These seasoned advocates know that even a sky-high-level panel will not immediately bring justice to a system built on a fatally flawed foundation. But as they continue to organize and agitate, they hope this process will spur a few more steps to be taken along the path to meaningful change.