Nineteenth Session of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and Joint Session of the IBC and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC)

The 19th (Ordinary) Session of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) was held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris from 10 to 14 September 2012, with its public session taking place on 11 and 12 September 2012. In conjunction with this session, the Joint Session of the IBC and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC) was also held on 13 and 14 September 2012. Both sessions brought together 151 participants from 74 countries. The Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, Ms Pilar Àlvarez-Laso, delivered the opening address for the 19th Session of the IBC. The Director-General of UNESCO, Ms Irina Bokova, conveyed her message through a video transmitted on the occasion of the opening of the Joint Session of the IBC and the IGBC.

In accordance with the work programme of the IBC for 2012-2013, the 19th Session and the Joint Session was devoted to two topics:

  1. the issue of traditional medicine and its ethical implications; and
  2. initial reflections on the principle of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization, as set forth in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005).

Traditional Medicine and its Ethical Implications

The IBC’s reflection on traditional medicine is a continuation of its work from the 2010-2011 biennium, and was included in its 2012-2013 work programme during its 18th Session in Baku, Azerbaijan. In pursuing this work, the IBC has consulted and engaged both internal and external sources.

On an internal basis, exchanges were held with the Member States of the IGBC during the Joint Session of IBC and IGBC and the 7th Session of the IGBC, respectively held at UNESCO Headquarters in October 2010 and September 2011. At the 17th Session of the IBC, in October 2010, experts from UNESCO’s Natural Sciences and Culture Sectors were invited to provide their input on the issue.

Externally, over 100 specialized research institutes worldwide were requested to fill out a questionnaire designed to collect information on traditional medical practices and especially on their institutional framework and legal regulation. Traditional health practitioners from different regions of the world were invited by the IBC to participate in its 18th Session (held in Baku in May-June 2011) and enriched the discussion with their own points of view and experience. The Draft Report was further discussed by the members of IBC over the first months of 2012, and was then sent to colleagues in the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the Natural Sciences and Culture Sectors for additional feedback, who provided very relevant comments to improve the report.

The Draft Report was presented as a work in progress that would be improved following the discussions of the 19th Session and the comments received. The reflexion around the concept of freedom of choice within the framework of human rights, to be understood as respect for cultural diversity, was emphasized. Tradition as a choice and not as a destiny introduces the greatest challenge that is to ensure that populations have the actual possibility to exercise an autonomous and informed choice. This would ensure the possibility of a co-existence of the traditional and the said “modern” medicines as two different paradigms which are not positioned in confrontation of each other; many participants stressed that the question is not whether one approach to medicine is superior to the other. Traditional and “modern” medicines are to be explained and evaluated through their respective histories, origins and practices and the IBC should propose ethical standards that aim at ensuring safety, efficacy and protection of patients in each of these domains. It was agreed that clearly defining the boundaries of traditional medicine is difficult, but needed. It was also confirmed that the topic must not be abandoned, despite its complexities, as it concerns the lives of major parts of the world’s population, and that it raises fundamental ethical questions that are pertinent for Member States. The report should emphasize that respecting ethical principles and human rights is the fundamental guiding principles for both traditional and “modern” medicines.

In its reserved meetings, the IBC decided that most of the comments made by WHO, the Natural Sciences and Culture Sectors, and the participants of the sessions will be taken into account in the revision of the working document. It was further decided that non-discrimination and biopiracy should also be reflected as crucial issues. Integration of traditional medicines through evaluation using a shared platform for assessment should be underscored. It was also decided that the title of the report will be modified to indicate “traditional medicine systems” for better accuracy, instead of only “traditional medicine”. On the question of how to define “non” traditional medicine, the IBC, by a majority decision, decided to use the term “modern medicine” as a working definition for the report, specifying at the beginning of the document that this is a working term that is purely descriptive and technical referring to modern science oriented medicine, and is not intended as a judgment of value over traditional medicine. The Committee will also focus its reflection on traditional medicine, as defined by the WHO, and not on Complementary Alternative Medicines (CAM).

The IBC constituted a small working group to revise the document in this regard, and finalized the Report of IBC on “Traditional medicine systems and their ethical implications” (SHS/EGC/IBC-19/12/3 Rev. of 8 February 2013) in February 2013. As such, this item will not be included on the agenda of its 20th Session.

•    Read the Report of the IBC on Traditional Medicine Systems and their Ethical Implications [PDF, 134 KB]

Initial Reflections on the Principle of Non-Discrimination and Non-Stigmatization

The work of the IBC on the issue of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization is a continuation of its commitment to elaborate ethical principles contained in the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005). A small working group consisting of 6 focal points was set up to prepare a preliminary document using this principle as set forth in Article 11 of the Declaration as a “conceptual umbrella”, under which reflections in the areas of Access to Drugs, Biobanks, HIV/AIDS, Nanotechnologies, Neuroscience and Organ, tissues and cell transplantation and trafficking could be transversally analyzed. The focal points highlighted the risks of discrimination and stigmatization driven by the scientific advances and/or entrenched structural problems within these areas. This preliminary document provides first reflections on the principle, which would then be expanded into a full report by the IBC throughout the biennium. These first reflections illustrated the interrelation and complementarity of the principle of non-discrimination and non-stigmatization to other principles of the Declaration, specifically to autonomy, consent, vulnerability, privacy, equity and social responsibility and health. The IBC’s task in this regard is to ensure that the best tools are given to foster action to heighten awareness and protect human rights, both in emerging and persistent topics.

In its reserved meeting, the IBC agreed that these initial reflections constitute a solid starting point that should be further elaborated considering the comments and suggestions received throughout the sessions. It was also agreed that a better framework should be established to ensure that the principle is thoroughly elaborated, using the topics above as contextual examples to highlight the problems with discrimination and stigmatization. The working group was then expanded, and a preliminary roadmap for the report was outlined. The Secretariat is currently consolidating the contributions of the working group into a Draft Report to be further discussed prior and during the 20th Session of the IBC.

Powerpoint presentations made during the meetings

The ideas and opinions expressed in these presentations are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UNESCO or its Members States.

Information Documents

Working Documents

IBC Secretariat
Mr Tee Wee Ang
Bioethics Programme
Division of Ethics and Global Change
Tel.: + 33 (0)1 45 68 39 45
Fax: + 33 (0)1 45 68 55 15
E-mail: ibc(at)

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