Access to medicines - a fundamental element of the right to health

Health is a fundamental human right, indispensable for the exercise of many other rights in particular the right to development, and necessary for living a life in dignity. The realization of the right to health is also a fundamental goal of State’s policies and programmes, regardless of their economic, social, cultural, religious or political background.

Nevertheless, for millions of people around the world, the full enjoyment of the right to health remains an illusive goal, including due to the obstacles to access to medicines of good quality, affordable and in a timely fashion, mostly in developing countries. This constitutes a challenge to human dignity, the basis of all human rights, including the rights to life, health and development of all persons. From a human rights perspective, access to medicines is intrinsically linked with the principles of equality and non-discrimination, transparency, participation, and accountability. States are obliged to develop national health legislation and policies and to strengthen their national health systems. For this purpose, key issues related to access to medicines must be taken into account such as: sustainable financing, availability and affordability of essential medicines; price and quality control; dosage and efficacy of medicines; procurement practices and procedures, supply chains, etc.

Against this background and as requested in Human Rights Council resolution 12/24, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) convened an expert consultation on 11 October 2010 in Geneva, Switzerland, “for an exchange of views on human rights considerations relating to the realization of access to medicines as one of the fundamental elements in achieving progressively the full realization of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (para. 7, HRC res. 12/24).

The expert consultation focused on: (1) access to medicines as a fundamental element of the right to health; and (2) emerging issues, existing obstacles to providing access to medicines, and ways forward. The consultation contributed to gathering and focusing expert opinions on the legal interpretation of the above issues, the need for increased policy coherence between human rights obligations and other areas of government policy-making, as well as strengthening the global partnership for development, institutional coordination and collective action towards enhancing access to medicines.

The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health will submit a full report on the outcome of the expert consultation to the Human Rights Council in 2011.