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States must prioritize health and equality over profits and vaccine hoarding, UN experts say

Omicron and other new variants underline urgency to act

29 November 2021

Geneva (29 November 2021) - UN human rights experts* today urged States to act decisively to ensure that all people have equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those in low-income countries who have largely been left out of the global response.

“The postponement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference should not be a reason to delay progress already made: on the contrary, it confirms the urgent need to take collective action to address vaccine inequality,” said the experts. The ministerial conference, which had been due to be held from 30 November, has been postponed indefinitely after an outbreak of the particularly transmissible strain of COVID-19 Omicron led several governments to impose travel restrictions.

“States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster and more equal access to vaccines worldwide,” they said. This includes the introduction of a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) to ensure that protection of vaccine patents does not become a barrier to the effective enjoyment of the right to health.

“States also have the individual responsibility to ensure the equal distribution of vaccines within and between countries by avoiding hoarding and stepping up distribution. Moreover, businesses have an independent responsibility to ensure that their actions do not result in adverse impacts on human rights”, said Surya Deva, Chairperson of the Working Group on business and human rights.

Addressing the health crisis equitably must take priority over profit maximization by corporations and vaccine hoarding by high-income countries, the experts said.

“Every person must have access to a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective and timely," the independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council said in relation to WTO ongoing negotiations. "The priority should be to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and the highest attainable standard of health."

Of nearly 8 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally to date, only 5.5 percent have gone to low-income countries, according to Our World in Data, a scientific publication which tracks pandemic-related data.

On 14 October, the experts sent 44 letters to the WTO, G7 and G20 States, the European Union and pharmaceutical companies urging equal and universal vaccine access. So far, only six responses have been received.

“We are deeply concerned that those who have suffered gravely – for example, people living in poverty and other marginalized individuals without access to social protection, water, essential health services or information about the pandemic – are those who are being left behind in regard to the global vaccination campaign," said Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“Any other approach which disregards human rights will be counter-productive in our interconnected world, and will increase negative impacts and risks, including the emergence of new variants, such as Omicron, which may render existing vaccines less effective. No one is safe until all of us are safe,” the experts concluded.



*The experts: Mr. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Mr.Surya Deva (Chairperson), Ms. Elzbieta Karska (Vice-Chair), Ms. Fernanda Hopenhaym, Mr.Githu Muigai, and Ms.Anita Ramasastry, Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises ; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. Saad Alfarargi,Special Rapporteur on the right to development; Mr.Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; and Mr. Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order.


The following 27 experts, in 23 mandates, have endorsed this press release:

  1. Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food
  2. Mr. Pedro Arrojo Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation
  3. Ms. Koumba Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education
  4. Ms. Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights
  5. Mr. David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
  6. Mr Marcos Orellana, Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights
  7. Ms. Attiya Waris, Independent Expert on debt, other international financial obligations and human rights
  8. Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
  9. Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
  10. Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  11. Ms.Elina Steinerte (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Vice-Chair), Ms. Leigh Toomey, Mr. Mumba Malila and Ms. Priya Gopalan, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
  12. Ms. Mama Fatima Singhateh, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children and sexual exploitation
  13. Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance
  14. Ms. Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children
  15. Ms. Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women
  16. Ms. Muluka Anne Miti-Drummond, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism
  17. Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons
  18. Mr. Alioune Tine, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali
  19. Ms. Isha Dyfan, Independent Expert on Somalia
  20. Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia
  21. Mr. Yao Agbetse, Independent Expert for the Human Rights situation in the Central African Republic
  22. Mr. Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran
  23. Ms. Anais Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus

The Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact:
Ms. Juana Sotomayor (+41 22 928 9814, +41 78 77 60 371 / [email protected]) and Ms. Kinga Dery (+41 76 686 10 72 / [email protected] )

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / [email protected]).

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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