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Duty to Assist: How Far Can We Go?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly refers to non-state human rights duties that belong to “every organ of society.” As many multinational corporations (MNCs) gradually become more powerful in the global marketplace and global political economy, governments are said to be losing their effectiveness as the sole protector of people’s rights (Wettstein 2012). Many within the international legal community are thus increasingly supportive of imposing human rights duties directly upon MNCs. Recognizing that the ability to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health is essential in realizing other human rights, and that coordinated efforts of all components of civil society are important in realizing these rights, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for example, argues that nonstate actors, including corporations, have responsibilities to assist regarding the realization of the right to health.

If we take these rights seriously and accept the principle of rescue, it seems that many pharmaceutical corporations that sell ARTs can be good candidates for such a duty to aid, as long as the effort required does not impose significant burden. But questions remain as to how to determine the extent of such a duty and ensure compliance. This section explains how common arguments regarding pharmaceutical companies’ duty to assist either go too far in singling out pharmaceutical pricing as the culprit of the lack of access to treatment or do not go far enough in ensuring that pharmaceutical companies, particularly those with prior relationships with affected LDCs in need of ARTs, are doing their fair and required share. Any rights to health are meaningless unless practices and institutions are established to determine who is to respond to these claims and to enforce compliance (Badcott 2013).

 
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