Campaigners petition UN to investigate racial and gender discrimination in global COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

US, UK, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland in violation of international human rights law in “prolonging the pandemic” ahead of vital World Trade Organisation meeting .

GENEVA–An international coalition of human rights law groups, public health experts, and civil society organisations is taking legal action against the US, UK, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland, on the grounds that these countries are in violation of international human rights law by failing to intervene on what has been an inequitable and racially discriminatory rollout of the vaccine and other COVID healthcare technologies. 

In an appeal to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the coalition charges that by failing to lift intellectual property barriers on all COVID-19 medical technologies through a TRIPS waiver (or to effectively implement it through technology transfers), the US, UK, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland are in violation of the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a human rights convention ratified by nearly all countries in the world. 

Because the rich countries currently making and hoarding vaccines are majority white, and the formerly colonized countries suffering due to vaccines being withheld are majority Black, indigenous, or other people of colour, the current inequitable vaccine rollout is a textbook example of structural racial discrimination. 

The International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination requires that countries take effective measures “to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws or regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” Countries have an obligation under the convention to “prevent, prohibit and eradicate” all practices of racial discrimination particularly “racial segregation and apartheid.”

Yet the US, UK, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland have opposed or willfully failed to take all available measures to increase global supply of and equitable access to vaccines and other COVID-19 medical technologies, a violation of their obligations under the human rights convention.

Globally, 73% of all COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to just 10 countries. Rich countries have administered 61 times more doses per capita than poorer countries and delivered only 14% of the 1.8 billion doses promised to poor countries. Just 5.8% of Africans have been vaccinated. The top 10 high-income countries will have hoarded 870 million excess doses of vaccines by the end of 2021. Countries in the Global South stand to lose $2.3 trillion from now until 2025 if they can’t vaccinate 60% of their population by mid-2022. 

The appeal asks the CERD Committee to compel the US, UK, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland to “respect, protect and fulfil their human rights obligations,” as well as to take several immediate actions, including:

  • Demand that the Respondent States immediately support, implement, and enforce a temporary waiver of the intellectual property barriers on COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments currently imposed by the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS), as requested by India and South Africa in October 2020, and 
  • Mandate technology and knowledge transfers from the relevant pharmaceutical corporations to the many manufacturers around the world standing by to ramp up production of these lifesaving medical technologies.

The CERD meets from November 15 in a weeks-long session coinciding with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting on November 30. The WTO ministerial is a key opportunity to resolve the year-long impasse on the proposal to break the corporate monopoly control of COVID-19 healthcare technologies by granting the TRIPS waiver. 

The petition urges CERD to find that these countries must prioritise actions that will protect people’s lives instead of the corporate-controlled intellectual property of the vaccine. They should be supporting — rather than blocking — a proposal at the WTO to waive these intellectual property monopolies, so that more countries are able to make more and cheaper vaccines and other COVID healthcare technologies. 

Germany, the UK, Norway and Switzerland have actively opposed moves to waive intellectual property barriers on all COVID-19 vaccine technologies at the WTO. The US has declared support but only for a narrow waiver on the vaccine alone, while failing to use other mechanisms at its disposal e.g. mandating technology transfers through use of the Defense Production Act. 

The petition is also strengthened by a separate legal brief signed by jurists around the world which finds that these “blocking” states are also, by their actions, breaching a number of covenant and treaty obligations under international human rights law. The brief says these countries are violating both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, along with a number of treaties they have signed as members of the WTO, including their legal obligations of international cooperation.  

The petitioning groups include African Alliance, Center for Economic and Social Rights, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, Minority Rights Group, Oxfam International and Treatment Action Campaign. The petition was coordinated by Global Network of Movement Lawyers (of Movement Law Lab) and ESCR-Net, and is supported by SECTION27 and other organizations within the People’s Vaccine Alliance.