49th session of the Human Rights Council
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
10 March 2022
Today, as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we stand at a crossroads. Inequality versus the right to development. Nationalism against international solidarity.
We need to choose the right path.
The world has been profoundly fortunate to have had effective COVID-19 vaccines developed at an unprecedented pace. Science has saved millions of lives and livelihoods. But we have failed to administer the vaccines in a fair and equitable manner.
Right now, this failure is prolonging the pandemic.
More than 10.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, enough to protect the entire world population from severe symptoms, hospitalization and death. The grim reality however is that close to 70 per cent of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose, while just over 13 per cent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated.
This failure is profoundly unjust and immoral, and it is also deeply counterproductive. In all countries, hospitalization and deaths continue to occur predominantly among unvaccinated people.
The pandemic’s finish line is still out of sight. Despite this, a false narrative that it may be over is arising in some countries with high vaccination rates, and where the effects of the Omicron variant have been relatively mild.
Yet low vaccination rates in many countries continue to create ideal conditions for new variants to emerge. These may be more contagious and have the capacity to evade immunity, and are far more likely to occur among largely unvaccinated populations. So they pose a threat to everyone.
The human rights impact of global vaccine inequity is profound. The people most affected are those who suffer systemic discrimination and pervasive inequalities. Impact is also felt on economies which are recovering at sharply divergent rates, posing serious consequences for the right to development. And many developing countries are being plunged into multiple interlinked emergencies – a debt crisis, a development crisis and a human rights crisis.
Delayed vaccination may mean a lost decade for development. We risk losing an entire generation of young people to poor education and unemployment. Countries will become less resilient to fresh crises and shocks. And discontent at the human rights consequences of pandemic-related measures has the potential to escalate societal tensions and violence, which are growing around the world.
Vaccine nationalism denies people their inalienable human right to development. It exacerbates poverty and deepens inequalities. Unless universal and equitable access to vaccines globally can be ensured, stockpiling of COVID-19 vaccines is not consistent with States’ human rights obligations.
We have heard broad support for treating vaccines as a global public good. Yet, actions speak louder than words. It is now 16 months since South Africa and India called for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights under the so-called “TRIPS” agreement, a proposal supported now by more than 100 countries, but which has not yet been adopted. That step, as well as efforts such as WHO-supported technology transfer hubs, need urgent support.
While there has been some recent progress on closing the vaccine equity gap, we need to further accelerate these efforts by supporting COVAX to ensure timely, predictable and effective access to vaccines to all countries. We no longer have the excuse in the developed world that production constraints limit our generosity, as reports surface of tens of millions of excess vaccines expiring unused.
Pharmaceutical companies and other businesses engaged in developing, producing and distributing vaccines need to meet their responsibilities to respect human rights, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We also need to promote more transnational research between developed and developing countries.
And we must also address vaccine hesitancy - another global threat - by ensuring factual and timely information reaches all people, everywhere.
This is a crucial opportunity to revamp social protection programmes and to ensure universal health care, in order to future-proof the world against other crises.
I commend the decision to negotiate a ‘Pandemic Treaty’ to make sure we deliver on our human rights obligations to universal access to vaccines in the future. Meaningful participation of relevant actors in the drafting process is central to ensure it is strongly grounded in international human rights law.
This pandemic has torn apart the lives and human rights of billions of people. And it is far from over. But we can still halt the development reversals. We can still turn the tide and prevent inequalities being further cemented. We can still emerge from this crisis with an equitable, sustainable, and resilient world, if we place human rights at the centre of our response.
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