Human rights are inherent to all human beings. They are defined and established in more than 80 international legal instruments and include fundamental protections of human dignity, needs, and freedoms, such as food, housing, privacy, personal security, and democratic participation. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the responsibility to protect human rights has primarily fallen on governments. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, it became increasingly clear that the freedoms enshrined in the human rights framework could also be violated—and promoted—by the private sector.

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Guiding Principles), the first international instrument to assign companies the responsibility to respect human rights. The Guiding Principles state that governments must put in place good policies, laws, and enforcement measures to prevent companies from violating rights; that companies must refrain from negatively impacting rights even when governments are failing to create or enforce necessary laws; and that victims of corporate abuses must have access to effective remedy. As part of this responsibility, the Guiding Principles require companies to undertake due diligence to identify and manage their negative human rights impacts.

This brief identifies the 10 most relevant human rights impacts for businesses operating in the biopharmaceutical industry (“pharma companies”). This information is gathered from BSR’s direct engagement with pharma companies, as well as our 25 years of experience helping companies in all sectors manage their human rights risks. This primer was drafted before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and has been enhanced with insights collected as the crisis unfolds.

In addition to the range of human rights relevant in general business operations (e.g., workplace rights, community safety), the right to health is particularly relevant to pharma companies. In recent years, society’s expectations for pharma companies to advance this right has broadened. Launched in 2008, the Access to Medicine Index ranks pharma companies’ efforts to expand access to medicine in low- and middle-income countries and has gained the support of investors as a key indicator of such efforts. The right to health also underpins a number of other rights. For example, the right to health sets the stage for the right to an adequate standard of living, because good health is key to securing and maintaining a job. In contrast, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the protection of public health risks infringing on the right to privacy, as personal data is collected in an effort to identify and track people who are sick. These interconnections raise additional human rights risks and opportunities for the pharma industry, with some of the most salient covered below.