WHO Global Evidence-to-Policy Summit - Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: ‘Strengthening the research-policy-nexus: Creating an equitable, sustainable and resilient world’

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Colleagues and friends,

It has been almost two years since governments and leaders had to swiftly make difficult choices to face multiple, overlapping crises. And we continue to do so, as COVID-19 and its economic impacts, coupled with the climate crisis, still pose enormous, life-threatening challenges.

But we have learned a lot during these months that can help us, together, recover better, into a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient world.

Two pre-requisites must be the basis of any decisions that have to be made.

First is sound, scientific evidence. That is what have let us know how the virus spreads, what could fight it, and how we could keep ourselves and each other safe. Analyzing a variety of data helped to track and fight the pandemic, and demographics helped countries understand who among their populations was most at risk.

And you may be surprised, but the use of sound science is also a human rights obligation.

Which brings me to the second point. Human rights must be at the heart of the pandemic response. This is not to complicate matters, nor they are empty words. Human rights make efforts more effective. They are also are useful guardrails at times of competing demands that keeps us focused on a people centered response.

You may be asking yourselves: “but what good would human rights do in the middle of multiple crises?”

And, in my experience as a medical doctor, a former public health official, and a former President, I will answer you: a lot.

Human rights provide a framework which can guide us when making the most difficult decisions. During COVID-19, we have seen countries that have put significant efforts to place scientists and experts in their task forces to deal with the pandemic from the medical, socio-cultural, and human rights perspectives.

These countries have shown more resilience. Others, who were swayed by political arguments and misinformation suffered more fatalities.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, my Office has developed a series of guidance documents that provide advice to governments on how COVID-19 response can and should be human rights-based in areas such as healthcare, housing, emergency measures, and others.

The guidance includes an emphasis on the collection and availability of anonymized disaggregated data related to the pandemic. The reason is simple. Disaggregated data will help COVID-19 response better address specific impacts related to gender, age, disability, or ethnicity, among others. It will also help remove barriers, pre-empt potential discrimination, monitor the rollout of health services, including vaccines, and ensure equal access to treatment.

We also understand that there are challenges in maximizing public resources to meet human rights obligations. Aligning policies with the best scientific evidence available helps a State to do that during times of economic crises.

With that in mind, my Office launched the Surge Initiative in September 2019, with teams composed of macroeconomists and experts on sustainable development and human rights. Through our field presences, this initiative seeks to expand our support to countries on implementing economic, social and cultural rights. It links human rights with economics to curb inequalities and contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.

I am happy to share a few examples with you.

In Kenya, Moldova, Maldives, and West Africa, we supported countries in collecting and analyzing disaggregated quantitative and qualitative data to measure the fulfillment of and retrogression in health and other economic and social rights.

In Serbia, Paraguay, Peru, and Mexico, we worked with stakeholders in assessing impacts of COVID-19 on different vulnerable segments of the population and in formulating recommendations that align economic and social policies with human rights.

During technical discussions with international financial institutions, governments, and others, in Lebanon, Zambia, and Ukraine, we assisted the development of recommendations on how governments can dedicate the maximum available resources to guarantee economic and social rights while recovering from debt and economic crises.

Dear colleagues,

As I mentioned earlier, everyone has the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it clear. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on its turn, has elaborated on the convergence of human rights and science in its General Comment 25. In other words, scientific evidence, and the medical advances that can be derived from it, must be universally accessible.

But while access to misinformation is easy and free, that is often not the case with scientific knowledge. The costs of this discrepancy to human rights and human lives are increasingly higher.

Last year, my Office made a joint appeal for Open Science, together with CERN, UNESCO, and the WHO.

We called on States, international bodies, science and medical institutions and practitioners to engage in different forms of cooperation to ensure the broadest possible sharing of scientific knowledge, and the broadest possible access to the benefits of scientific knowledge.

I commend governments that supported this direction, whether in the form of effective and inclusive forms of communication or the distribution of health-related information, goods and services including COVID-19 vaccines.

Indeed, the pace at which we gained scientific knowledge in the past 18 months has been extraordinary. Through science, billions of COVID-19 vaccines have been produced at a rate which have helped save millions of lives.

However, there are still huge gaps and barriers in their production and distribution to ensure that priority populations in all countries have access to them. COVID-19 has been the latest reminder that in our interconnected world, no one will be safe until everyone is safe. That my enjoyment of the right to health in Geneva is connected to enjoyment of the right to health of others in every country.

But amid the highly uneven and injust vaccine rollout, developed and developing countries are on divergent paths towards recovery.

That could usher a rise in inequalities that will further push millions into poverty and hunger, and which could ferment into widespread dissatisfaction and greater conflicts.

We must do everything we can to avoid this.

I emphasize once again that COVID-19 vaccines must be treated as global public goods. Private profit should not be prioritised over public health.

To ensure improved access, both to vaccines and essential medicines, I welcome initiatives that examine how to separate research and development costs from the price of the final product. This could be done through the WHO COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, which enables developers of therapeutics, diagnostics, vaccines and other health products to share their intellectual property, their data and their knowledge.

Another way to facilitate manufacturers to scale up their production and supply of vaccines and, therefore, help to end vaccine inequity would be by waivers to Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as TRIPs.

In that regard, I am glad to hear that the recent talks among Member States at the World Trade Organizarion have advanced towards convergence on how to address TRIPs in COVID-19 response.

I hope that these talks further progress during the upcoming WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference into a temporary TRIPS waiver or an agreement that applies intellectual property rights in a manner that upholds and strengthens human rights. That includes the rights to health, food, and science for all people, especially those left furthest behind.

Dear friends,

During the recent Human Rights Council panel on COVID-19 and inequalities, I was heartened to hear concerted calls for concrete action that prioritizes people’s rights to health and right to life.

As I have said before, we must learn the lessons taught by COVID-19. That is the only way to recover better.

With human rights and scientific evidence, we can still win back the development gains that we have been recently lost; we can reverse the pandemic of inequalities that COVID-19 has exacerbated; and we can rise out of this crisis with an equitable, sustainable, and resilient world.

Thank you.