Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Health as a Human Right

I’ve been meaning to write up a few scribbled lines from the interesting lunch session I attended last week entitled ‘health as a human right’ at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The event focused on how the international community has begun to consider the ‘highest attainable standard of health’ as a fundamental component of the human rights agenda. The discussion touched on a range of ethical issues from the corporate responsibility of pharmaceuticals companies to more concrete matters of policy and law. Indeed, it seems logical to make a short posting on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has deservedly got a fair bit of attention today (even if it's late in NYC!)

The Carnegie Council regularly offers great events and generally invite excellent guests to speak. This time was no exception with a panel featuring Christian Barry (Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics), Meg Boulware (Baker & McKenzie), Laura Herman (FSG Social Impact Advisors), Maggie Kohn (Merck), Rohit Malpani (Oxfam America), Lisa Oldring (Special Advisor to Mary Robinson). There were some interesting comments and I have very briefly touched upon one useful suggestion made in the text below. Fortunately, the Carnegie Council does a good job of videoing their events - the full discussion can be seen by clicking here:

Pharmaceuticals companies have come under plenty of scrutiny for their CSR policies and the access to medicine debate has been around for a long time in policy circles (now we even have an index, which came out earlier this year). Responsibilities in this area are grey, as acknowledged at this event by the top CSR Officer at Merck, which is considered a leader in the field. In terms of medicines, their policies are predicated on the principles of availability, quality, access, and affordability. It's the last two aspects that have been a huge bone of contention. On access they have made great strides (such as their policy on patents in Least Developed Counties) but the issue of price continues to be a hot issue, as eloquently highlighted by the Oxfam representative.

One particularly interesting recommendation from the session actually came from Merck. Essentially, the proposition was for stakeholders (donor organizations, governments, pharmaceuticals) to come together to work on a list of principles in terms of a right to health, perhaps working with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to develop a series of indicator in this area for all organizations to work upon. While the GRI guidelines have their critics, I think the process of collaborative action itself is incredibly valuable and a way needs to be found for such work to be taken forward by industry leaders. While much greater consideration from all sides is still required, such an opportunity is too important not to take.