The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) adopted a decision under its “early warning and urgent action” procedures, stating that developed countries’ “persistent refusal” to waive COVID-19 vaccine IP rights – such as patents and trademarks – violated non-discrimination guarantees under international human rights law.
CERD is one of the UN’s human rights treaty bodies. It monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its 182 State parties and is composed of 18 independent experts serving in their personal capacity.
Developing world left behind
The Committee said it was addressing in particular countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, who were all State parties to the Convention and had developed IP-protected COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and healthcare technologies.
Quoting the latest data from the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the Committee pointed out that while some 32 per cent of the global population have received at least one COVID-19 booster, in developing countries such as Gabon, Papua New Guinea, Burundi and Madagascar, that proportion stands at less than one per cent.
The Committee insisted that COVID-19 remained a serious public health issue with devastating negative impacts that are falling “disproportionately” on individuals and groups vulnerable to racial discrimination – in particular people of African or Asian descent, ethnic minorities, Roma communities and Indigenous Peoples.
In an interview with UN News, CERD chairperson Verene Shepherd underscored the “high levels of morbidity and mortality” affecting these groups. “We can’t allow this to go unattended”, she said.
Suspend IP rights in health crises
The Committee’s experts urged States to incorporate a mechanism that commits governments to suspend intellectual property rights in a health crisis, in the draft pandemic preparedness treaty currently under negotiation at the WHO.
They called on States parties in the global North to support poorer countries’ healthcare capacity with resources and to enable vaccines, relevant medicines and other necessary equipment and supplies “to be available to all”.
The right to health
The Committee is also in the process of preparing new guidance, under the form of a “general recommendation”, on racial discrimination and the enjoyment of the right to health.
Ms. Shepherd said that the COVID-19 pandemic was a direct trigger for this project. She stressed that a link had to be made between the historic injustices of slavery and colonialism which “remain largely unaccounted for today” and the low level of attention paid to the health of people of African descent, Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities.
The issue was an urgent action item for the Committee, she said, and the first draft adopted in April built upon the “evidence-based link between racial discrimination as a structural social determinant – as recognized by WHO – and the right to health”.
The Committee was gathering contributions from a wide variety of stakeholders to prepare a final version of the guidance, she said.