Union statement on UN Human Rights Day 2016

Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on 10 December, commemorating the date in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, it calls on all of us to stand up for someone else’s rights.

Governments of all 193 UN Member States are obliged to provide citizens with the ‘highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.’

Tobacco use is the single greatest preventable cause of premature death worldwide – as such, governments entrusted with protecting the health of citizens should be unswerving in their commitment to reducing tobacco use in all its forms.

But tobacco use causes six million preventable deaths per year at present. And the true cost of nicotine addiction does not end with these six million lost lives. The devastation ripples out, affecting families, communities, economies.

The good news is that comprehensive implementation of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [WHO FCTC] is proven to help people quit tobacco, to prevent new generations becoming addicted and to protect others from the harms of second-hand smoke. It is cost effective and eminently achievable.

Perhaps it is for these reasons the WHO FCTC is the most swiftly adopted UN treaty of all time. It now has 180 Parties legally-bound to implementing the measures it sets out. This is significant progress. And yet, for now, the six million remain.

As the health agenda gains ground, governments must continue to push forward into new frontiers and implement the WHO FCTC in its entirety. Until WHO FCTC Article 5.3, which insulates policymakers against tobacco industry lobbyists, is embedded in every government department, progress toward a tobacco-free generation will remain an impossible uphill struggle. To secure success a whole of government commitment to Article 5.3 is required – because protecting health and protecting the interests of the tobacco industry are mutually exclusive.

Uruguay is a case in point. One of the world’s smallest nations pitched against one of the world’s largest corporations, Philip Morris International, in a six-year legal battle to uphold its sovereign right to protect the health of its citizens above the financial interests of a tobacco company. Uruguay stood firm, and earlier this year won the case. Doubtless this battle was costly to Uruguay, and doubtless it required solidarity against the odds on the part of its government. But not only did this courage and fortitude secure life-saving tobacco control measures for the people of Uruguay, it secured an international precedent for all other nations. Tobacco control needs such champions.

As well as using such tactics to delay and obstruct life-saving public health policies, tobacco companies are guilty of human rights abuses throughout the supply chain – children working and becoming sick on tobacco farms worldwide, from the USA to Indonesia; young people aggressively targeted with tobacco advertising across Africa; oceans polluted by cigarette butts and the toxic chemicals they produce.

Tobacco control needs new champions, those willing to fight in new arenas: international trade, investment and finance, agriculture, environment, children’s rights, human rights.

‘Wherever there is discrimination and exploitation, we can speak up and let it be known that we oppose this, and seek to stop it. We can join others to publicly lobby for better leadership, better laws and greater respect for human dignity.’

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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