Activists Threaten Legal Action Against Countries Blocking TRIPS Waiver
Civil society groups hold global demonstrations outside embassies of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Brazil, and other countries which oppose a temporary WTO patent waiver on COVID-19 health products.

Human rights lawyers have threatened legal action against the governments of Canada, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom if they fail to support a waiver of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement in relation to COVID-19 healthcare products.

The waiver will be discussed at the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) next week .  

A group of human rights advocates — the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (Germany), Professor Andenæs QC at the University of Oslo (Norway), and a coalition of organizations in Canada —On Thursday announced prospective domestic lawsuits in their respective countries should their governments fail to support the waiver of intellectual property over COVID healthcare technologies proposed by South Africa and India at the WTO last year in response to the pandemic.

Meantime, Global Justice Now and Just Fair have written a letter of concern to the UK government setting out why the failure to support the waiver contravenes international human rights law, according to a statement released on Thursday by the UK-based social justice organisation, Global Justice Now,

India and South Africa proposed the waiver last October, and it now has the support of over 100 low and middle-income countries while 60 countries have agreed to co-sponsor the waiver proposal. 

Legal letters warn governments

Letters drafted to governments by lawyers on behalf of organisations such as Global Justice Now and Just Fair highlight the global disparities in access to COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics, and highlight governments’ obligations under international human rights law to take “steps within their power to ensure the human rights to life, health, equality, and benefit from scientific progress”.

The letters also stress that countries have legal duties with respect to international cooperation, good-faith implementation of treaty obligations, along with access to justice.

On 24 November, the majority of the European Parliament voted for the European Union to support a temporary TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. Although even the US has lent its support to the waiver for the vaccines, Japan, the UK, Canada, and some EU member states like Norway and Germany have opposed the proposal 

An urgent letter to Canada’s Minister of International Trade (traduction) signed by multiple organizations and human rights experts warned that if Canada fails to support the TRIPS waiver, this decision could be challenged in domestic courts as a failure to implement Canada’s human rights obligations in good faith, through international cooperation.

It stated that such a decision could also be challenged as a violation of rights to life, security of the person and equality in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “because of its effect on the life and health of vulnerable groups in Canada, including women, the elderly, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, Black people, other racialized persons, and persons experiencing poverty”.

When it comes to the EU, Germany is one of the members that has opposed the waiver. Miriam Saage-Maaß of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, said that it was important for Germany to live up to its extra-territorial human rights obligations and do everything within its power to enable equitable access to the most effective COVID-19 vaccines.

“Germany can no longer defend a position that enforces vaccine apartheid and which unnecessarily prolongs the pandemic situation worldwide,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Professor Mads Andenæs QC at the University of Oslo said, “Court action against the Norwegian government is to commence, challenging the inadequate responses by the government to comply with its obligations under international and European human rights law and the Norwegian constitution.”

Norway has failed to support the waiver, and Norwegian Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli currently chairs the WTO TRIPS Council.

Addressing the UK, Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now said: “Throughout this pandemic, the UK government has put the interests of big pharmaceutical businesses ahead of the need to save lives around the world and defeat this pandemic.

“The epitome of this approach is that they have effectively blocked, repeatedly, the one measure the vast majority of the world has demanded – the waiver of intellectual property rules at the WTO. We hope our action today will send a clear message: they need to stop blocking action at the WTO.”

These letters are part of a broader set of legal strategies being pursued by human rights networks to achieve equitable global access to COVID-19 healthcare technologies. 

Image Credits: Tadeau Andre/MSF .

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