UNASUR action on medicines and the right to health

Can southern regional organizations strengthen the bargaining position of less-developed countries and their societies’ needs in health care? By bringing together South American countries, UNASUR is advancing a broader rights agenda in access to medicines and attention to developing country demands.


Health as a human right is addressed in numerous declarations, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has since guided health care-related rights and policy in multilateral development agencies that work on health. But those promises have largely gone unfulfilled.

In recent years, attention on global health issues and rights has increased. In 2000, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued legal guidance on implementing the right to health, sponsored global declarations and established commissions on the social determinants of health. More recently, a joint commission from the medical journal The Lancet and the University of Oslo published a 2014 policy report in which it cited the imbalance of political power between nations as a major cause of health care inequality across the world. According to the report, disparities in health are not just linked to poverty but also to the unequal distribution of material and knowledge resources across nations and the capacity to influence global governance.

While there have been tremendous global advances in expanding civil liberties—through both international laws and practice—much of the normative infrastructure and policy to support rights was crafted, and is still shaped, by the interests of the developed north. Even in the morality of rights—civil, political, social, and economic—power rules.

International norms and commitments pushing for universal social and economic rights are still primarily implemented through institutions such as the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and the World Bank) and northern donor organizations. These are conservative institutions that have been slow to embrace broader economic and social rights, including health.

Today, though, the Global South—through a new raft of regional organizations—is moving to reset the norms and rework global (health) governance in support of rights and social justice goals.

While the Global South has struggled to advance broader economic and social rights in the development agenda, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has focused on a specific significant topic for its regional members: the right to health.

Access to medicines and the right to health

In the area of health, developing countries have historically been disadvantaged in their access to medicines and influence in setting the global health agenda—a result of their weaker status relative to business and the developed north. Developing countries’ access to medicines has been hampered by trade negotiations that reinforce existing intellectual property as well as international institutions and laws governing intellectual property rights that favor business over patients in the developing world.

In South America, the high cost of medicine and the lack of alternatives to existing drugs is particularly acute. Medicines not only define who lives and who dies but also, for many countries in the South, why (and how). According to the Secretary General of UNASUR, Ernesto Samper, almost 30 percent of the total public and private health care in South America is spent on medicine.

UNASUR has picked up this challenge, creating the UNASUR Health Council—one of the first councils created by the new regional group—and forming an alliance with a regional health think tank, the South American Institute of Health Governance (Instituto Sudamericano de Gobierno en Salud, ISAGS), in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The new alliance is in a far stronger position to pursue South America’s agenda in medicine than the traditional Washington, D.C.-based Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the health agency of the Inter-American system and regional office for the World Health Organization (WHO).   UNASUR/ISAGS focuses on health governance the ambitious agenda of “universal access to health,” while PAHO has traditionally concentrated on “health coverage.” These two approaches represent different ways of addressing how health care reaches societies, and ultimately speak of different conceptions of entitlement and equality.

ISAGS’ focus has been on the broader idea of strengthening health governance capacity, advocating the right to health and supporting policymaking and policy reforms towards the universalization of health care. In this capacity it has trained policymakers and practitioners by setting up UNASUR-sponsored network of public health schools in Bolivia, Guyana, Peru and Uruguay.

ISAGS has also provided support directly to ministries of health in Guyana and Paraguay on primary care and the preparation of clinical protocols, and has supported reforms aimed to move toward the universalization of health care in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. It is also involved in the diffusion of information on combating HIV/AIDS, influenza and dengue fever across the region, and has developed mapping techniques to coordinate shared policies for the production of some key medicines.

Policy advances of this sort—concrete, modest, focused, cheap to deliver, taken in a relatively short timeframe, and below the radar of political commentary—are unlike previous efforts in regionalism in South America. And they stand as evidence of UNASUR’s focused, grounded approach.

ISAGS has begun to scale up its level of activity on behalf of UNASUR, once again with relatively little attendant publicity. ISAGS has been quietly targeting global health governance forums and is trying to establish a joint bargaining position for South American negotiators vis-à-vis pharmaceutical companies and in the WHO. ISAGS now holds meetings prior to each annual gathering of the WHO so that UNASUR member states can coordinate their actions at the WHO. It’s an approach that both UNASUR and ISAGS are now using to speak out more widely on behalf of other developing countries.

Reclaiming sovereignty through integrated positions

As part of this campaign, UNASUR has also begun to take action on access to medicines. The strategy centers on coordinating active resistance to the dominance of pharmaceutical companies under a motto that links regional health diplomacy with sovereignty.

For instance, UNASUR is setting up a “Medicine Price Bank,” a computerized database revealing the prices paid by UNASUR countries for drug purchases. By making the information public and comparative, UNASUR is seeking to provide policymakers and health authorities information to strengthen the position of member states in purchases of medicines vis-à-vis pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, UNASUR’s Health Council has approved a project for mapping regional pharmaceutical capacities in 2012, to coordinate common policies among member states for production of medicines.

Within the WHO, UNASUR has pressed to change international norms regarding the combat of counterfeit medical products. Until recently that effort was spearheaded by the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), an agency led by big pharma and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and funded by developed countries engaged in intellectual property rights enforcement.

At the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010, UNASUR successfully proposed that an intergovernmental group replaced IMPACT to act on and prevent counterfeiting of medical products. This resolution was approved at the 65th World Health Assembly in May 2012. In the course of the meeting, UNASUR also lobbied for opening negotiations for a binding agreement on financial support and research to meet the pharmaceutical needs of developing countries, an issue that was resumed at the 67th WHO meeting last May.

More recently, they have also agreed on a plan to support of the creation of a fund to negotiate centralized purchases of the Hepatitis C virus treatments. The proposal, agreed to by the UNASUR Health Council in July 2015, will represent a milestone in the region in savings through price negotiation on an innovative and expensive medicine. It could also create incentives for the industry as centralized purchases could be a more conciliatory route toward medicine price reduction instead of the practice of compulsory licenses and direct government price cuts in the region.

The presence of UNASUR in this type of health diplomacy and its coordinated efforts to redefine rules of participation and representation in the governing of global health demonstrate that there is a new logic and momentum in regional integration and regional policy-making in Latin America. These actions create new spaces for policy coordination and collective action. In the all-important case of health rights, UNASUR—and other regional institutions too—can become an opportunity for practitioners, academics and policy makers to collaborate and network in support of better access to healthcare, medicines and policy-making.


Authors note: This article draws on a combination of documentary analysis and interview data. Some of the research was carried out in the context of the research project Poverty Reduction and Regional Integration: SADC and UNASUR Health Policies (PRARI), supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), grant ref. ES/L005336/1. The article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ESRC. For information on the project: http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/prari/

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