Patents, Human Rights and Access to Science

Patents, Human Rights and Access to Science

Aurora Plomer

The new millennium has been described as ‘the century of biology’, but scientific progress and access to medicines has been marred by global disputes over ownership of the science by universities and private companies. This book examines the challenges posed by the modern patent system to the right of everyone to access the benefits of science in international law.

Chapter 6: UNESCO: biotechnology, bioethics and the right to share in the benefits of science

Aurora Plomer

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, intellectual property law


UNESCO’s mission to protect and promote science, education and culture puts it in a unique position within the UN system to leverage expertise and authority on matters relating to the protection and diffusion of science. As seen in Chapter 4, UNESCO had a significant input in the drafters’ discussions on the wording of the text of Article 15 ICESCR. At the time, UNESCO’s contribution made clear that it did not intend to signify endorsement of the then prevailing international agreements on copyright and patents on which UNESCO had initiated a review. It is not clear that the report on patents was ever completed and if so whether it influenced UNESCO’s strategic priorities as there is no public record of the report. Moreover, UNESCO’s vision of providing international leadership on intellectual property rights and copyright was thwarted with the creation of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS agreement. Nonetheless, over the last 60-plus years, UNESCO has taken the lead in a number of significant initiatives specifically directed at the protection of scientists and the diffusion of science. This chapter starts with an overview of the history of UNESCO’s mission and standard-setting activities on science, culminating in the new millennium initiatives specifically targeted at Article 15 ICESCR. The United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) came into being on 4 November 1946 upon ratification by 20 states.

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