Abstract – Respecting the right to access to medicines: Implications of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for the pharmaceutical industry

Suerie Moon

Health and Human Rights 15/1

Published June 2013


What are the human rights responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies with regard to access to medicines? The state-based international human rights framework has long struggled with the issue of the human rights obligations of non-state actors, a question sharpened by economic globalization and the concomitant growing power of private for-profit actors (“business”). In 2011, after a six-year development process, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the Guiding Principles advanced by the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie. The Ruggie Principles sought to clarify and differentiate the responsibilities of states and non-state actors—in this case, “business” —with respect to human rights. The framework centered on “three core principles: the state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and the need for more effective access to remedies.”1

The “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” Framework emerged from a review of many industrial sectors operating from local to global scales, in many regions of the world, and involving multiple stakeholder consultations. However, their implications for the pharmaceutical industry regarding access to medicines remain unclear. This article analyzes the 2008 Human Rights Guidelines for Pharmaceutical Companies in relation to Access to Medicines advanced by then-UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Paul Hunt, in light of the Ruggie Principles. It concludes that some guidelines relate directly to the industry’s responsibility to respect the right to access to medicines, and form a normative baseline to which firms should be held accountable. It also finds that responsibility for other guidelines may better be ascribed to states than to private actors, based on conceptual and practical considerations. While not discouraging the pharmaceutical industry from making additional contributions to fulfilling the right to health, this analysis concludes that greater attention is merited to ensure that, first and foremost, the industry demonstrates baseline respect for the right to access to medicines.