ECOSOC Meeting in Geneva Tackles Global Public Health

29 July 2009

The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), one of the principal organs of the United Nations, recently held its Annual Ministerial Review (AMR) from 6-9 July. The gathering focused on meeting global public health objectives, with the ultimate aim of achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). During its General Segment, which runs from 23 - 30 July, ECOSOC addressed further health related matters, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Many member states noted that the combined impacts of the food crisis, climate change, and the ongoing economic crisis had severely impeded the progress of many developing nations towards their MDG targets. Members also cited the outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic as indicative of a need for greater collaboration in the health sector. In light of these developments, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for international cooperative, multi-sectoral approaches to public health in his opening address at the AMR.

With the MDG deadline set for 2015 and the international community very far behind on its development targets thus far, participants were hopeful that a declaration from the ministerial meeting would provide further momentum to facilitate the achievement of member nations' public health goals.

In this regard, the Ministerial Declaration that was adopted on 9 July after extended discussion reaffirmed the commitment to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the MDGs, in particular those related to health. It noted that the economic crisis is "undermining, by slowing or reversing, the development gains of developing countries." Participants also cited climate change as a particular threat to health in "the least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries, small island developing states and countries in Africa."

The declaration also called for the "fulfilment of all development assistance related commitments," reminding developed countries of their contribution goals and recognizing that more aid needs to be "targeted towards the health sector."

Participants noted that existing investments in health had yielded positive results in the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, especially when coupled with effective partnerships and well-coordinated UN programmes. However, member states also pointed out that these gains in the health sector had largely benefited the most affluent countries.

Developing countries underscored the importance of ensuring that intellectual property rules are supportive of access to medicines. The Group of 77 and China emphasised that patent holders should not "seek to restrain and unreasonably impose measures that affect the supply chain of medicines and transfer of technology relating to health products."

In a special ECOSOC event on Africa and the least developed countries, the representative of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), underlined that the research-based pharmaceutical industry is increasing its involvement in Africa. He pointed to the significant contribution made by the pharmaceutical industry towards helping achieve the health-related UN Millennium Development Goals.

The ministerial declaration reaffirmed the right to use "to the full" provisions contained in the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health and the 30 August 2003 decision on the implementation of paragraph 6 of the Doha Declaration, which provide flexibilities for the protection of public health, and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all. The Council also called for a "broad and timely" acceptance of the amendment to Article 31 of the TRIPS Agreement, which will strengthen the use of these flexibilities.

In an indirect allusion to the recent cases of seizures of generic medicines in transit in a number of developed countries, the declaration adopted by the Council also encouraged "all states to apply measures and procedures for enforcing intellectual property rights in a manner so as to avoid the creation of barriers to the legitimate trade of medicines and to provide for safeguards against the abuse of such measures and procedures."

In this context, India had requested that countries respect the concept of "territoriality" outlined in the TRIPs Agreement so as not to hinder legitimate trade and thus disrupt progress in the health sector.

Finally, the declaration also encouraged stakeholders and international organisations to support the wide implementation of the WHO's Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property, adopted in May 2008, which seeks to establish new thinking and a sustainable framework for "essential health research and development relevant to diseases which disproportionately affect developing countries."

During its General Segment, ECOSOC delegates also discussed the work of UNAIDS. The Council asked that governments promote access to safe and effective antiretroviral drugs at affordable prices, while urging UNAIDS and other UN agencies to strengthen their support to governments dealing with HIV/AIDS.

ICTSD reporting; "ECOSOC Calls For Intensified Efforts On Public Health And Use Of TRIPS Flexibilities," IP WATCH, 16 July 2009; "ECOSOC Adopts Resolutions on Digital Divide, HIV/AIDS, But Hurdles Remain," IP WATCH, 29 July 2009.

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