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Human rights and health

There is no such thing as a right to be ‘healthy’. Instead, there is a right to ‘the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’, often shortened to the ‘right to health’. A human rights approach can be useful in addressing chronic disease.

All of us are entitled to a life lived in dignity – fundamental to which is the right to the best attainable standard of health. The first human rights document – the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, born out of the carnage of the Second World War – is much more than just a shopping list of the conditions for a good life: it has legal force through a framework of international treaties requiring governments to respect, protect and fulfil a wide range of rights.

Some rights are absolute, such as the right to be free from torture or slavery. Many ‘economic, social and cultural’ human rights cannot be fully achieved immediately, as they require significant expenditure. Until the 1990s, the western bloc regarded ‘social, economic and cultural’ rights such as the right to health as being of less importance than ‘civil and political’ rights. This is a false dichotomy – no one human right can exist in isolation from the others.

Human rights and health

There is no such thing as a right to be ‘healthy’. Instead, there is a right to ‘the highest attainable  standard of physical and mental health’, often shortened to the ‘right to health’.

A human-rights approach to health requires that health care is:

  • available (hospitals, drugs, preventive medicine);
  • accessible (everyone must be able to reach appropriate care),
  • of good quality; and
  • culturally acceptable to all.

A ‘human-rights approach to health’ needs to be pragmatic. For example, it recognises that:

  • there are limited resources to spend on health – but requires governments to make progressive improvements;
  • not everyone can be cured of disease – but requires governments to provide treatment without discrimination.

Fulfilling this right depends on the rights to:

  • non-discrimination (e.g. in access to health care);
  • education (e.g. health, nutrition);
  • information (e.g. on different forms of treatment and the diseases themselves);
  • participate in decision-making; and
  • take advantage of scientific progress (e.g. in medical treatments).

Since the end of the Cold War, this indivisibility of rights has been given much more recognition – Amnesty International’s remit now incorporates social and economic rights, where previously it focused solely on civil and political rights. There is a groundswell of interest in making the fulfilment of all rights a reality for the millions of people who are denied them on a daily basis. In South Africa, for example, the right to health has been incorporated into the constitution, and the government can be held to account in the courts for failing to uphold it.

While governments, not companies, are bound by human rights treaties, international human rights standards require that governments ensure that the actions of companies do not infringe the rights of individuals – for example, legislating to ensure that working conditions are adequate and that advertising is not misleading.

How human rights can help

Those who confront chronic disease have much to learn from the approach taken by champions of human rights, who speak with moral authority because their ideals are grounded in common humanity. It requires public-health programmes and policies to give individuals, particularly from vulnerable groups, a say in decision-making and recognises health as a holistic concept, not merely as the treatment of disease.