Food for a thought to be dreamed every night


Human Rights Reader 303


Nowadays, public health and the right to health have come to mean too many things to different people.


15.   Public health is a specialty in which health practitioners should have to turn to past proven achievements for enlightenment. But do they? When health services become a merchandise they apply to its practice the laws of the market,* not the principles of public health. Health thus starts with its market price and only eventually travels backwards to public health. So, when profitability is the name of the game, too many human rights-based health concerns are relegated to the back burner. (C. Sepulveda)

*: Measures proposed by international financial institutions (IFIs) to improve efficiency when following the laws of the market are: Budget caps for hospitals, screening out unnecessary services, gate-keeping for all referrals to higher levels of care, shifting costs to local governments, greater competition between insurers and providers, greater reliance on contracting out to private services, moving away from simple reimbursement of providers using longer term contracting, having incentives for providers to minimize their waste, payments based on diagnostic related groups (DRGs) with treatment protocols and price schedules, higher co-payments in public insurance schemes, expanding the role of private insurance, bonus payments for physicians based on clinical outcomes, rationing high technology equipment and giving users more information about the quality and prices of particular services. IFIs purport that the introduction of market mechanisms can be powerful and that tightening of budget controls and greater central oversight can increase the responsiveness to patient needs while taming spending of the health care system. Calls are also made for smoking, alcohol, exercise, safe driving and regular check-ups related issues–all with preventive measures centered around individual behaviors. (F+D , 48:1. March 2011, pp 42-45)


16. For us HR activists, by treating health as a human right, we acknowledge the need for a strong social commitment to good health. There are few things as important as that in the contemporary world. The idea of human rights serves not as a “child of law”, but more as a “parent of law” in guiding needed ad-hoc legislation and regulations. A human rights focus serves as a parent not only of law, but also of many other ways of advancing the cause of that right. There are political, social, economic, scientific, and cultural actions that we need to take to advance the cause of (good) health for all. (A. Sen)


17. But we know we should and cannot wait for laws to be passed. Instead of leaving it to the legislative and judiciary powers to define and enforce people’s rights, it is health policy-makers that must ensure that human rights principles are incorporated into health programs from the outset; and, for HR activists, this is a tactical priority that means actively involving claim holders.


18. To put the above in context, note that: More than 30 countries have not yet ratified the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and 60 countries do not recognize the right to health in their national constitutions. (The Right to Food is recognized in 22 constitutions).


19.  WHO has for long avoided to use the term and concept right to health and, instead, uses human rights and health or health and human rights. WHO staff often uses the term health as a human right.**

**: These are the different terms I have found in WHO documents: Right to health services, Right to basic health services, Right to health care, and Right to be healthy.

I cannot understand this avoidance by WHO: Is something feared here? A fear to be held accountable for the global defense of the RTH? What does WHO actually avoid, I ask, by not using ‘right to health’? I have brought this up at several occasions in meetings with WHO, and I never get a clear answer. (Note that the UN special Rapporteur consistently uses ‘right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health’).


20. The question is: Do ‘Human right to health’ and ‘Health as a human right’ have different connotations or are they interchangeable? I tend to think they are different since the former relates to a specific, concrete covenant and to a General Comment, and the latter not. (General Comment 14 on the RTH interprets article 12 of ICESCR; it confirms that the RTH has both individual and collective dimensions, and that collective rights are critical in the field of health as modern public health policy relies heavily on  prevention and promotion approaches directed primarily towards groups).


21. WHO uses the legal recognition of health as a human right as an indicator of a government’s commitment to improving access to essential medicines though.*** Access to essential medicines has thus become one of five UN indicators to measure progress in the progressive realization of the right to health.

***: Some consider that politics should be maintained out of WHO and would prefer to see its role reduced to that of a purely technical body. But politics has been invariably embedded in WHO throughout its history. The challenge is not to somehow remove politics from the organization, but rather to ensure its healthier political functioning. (K. Lee)


22. While constitutional recognition of the right to access to essential medicines is an important sign of national values and commitment, it is neither a guarantee nor a key step taken by many countries. Enforcement is what counts.


23. Inequality and discrimination in the access to essential medicines remain the key public health challenge of our times. Therefore, five questions should be asked to assess if a rights-based approach in national essential drugs programs is working; they are:

i)     Which medicines are covered and committed-to by the Government?

ii)    Have all beneficiaries of the medicines program been consulted?

iii)   Are there mechanisms to assure transparency and accountability?

iv)   Do all vulnerable groups have equal access to essential medicines? How

does one know this?

v)    Are there safeguards and redress mechanisms in case the human right to

medicines is violated?


24. Collecting and publishing disaggregated statistics and targeted surveys to monitor the access to essential medicines by gender and by vulnerable groups remains a priority so that results can be reported regularly on the progressive realization of this right (e.g., every two years). It is to be insisted that only on the basis of disaggregated statistics on access to essential medicines will we be able to assess progress.


25. Such progress should be reported by NGOs when they prepare shadow (parallel) reports to international HR monitoring bodies on country progress towards the fulfillment of the right to health; standard access indicators developed by WHO can be used for this. Therefore, monitoring and holding governments accountable in relation to their human rights responsibilities and access to medicines is equally indispensable.


The long struggle over user fees is only introductory to the practical dilemmas associated with a rights-based commitment to universal health coverage.


26. Total individual expenditure on health (public and private including out of pocket expenditure ) has, as we all know, increased pretty much worldwide. Nevertheless, this increment has not resulted in greater access to health care services, but has rather destroyed the institutional scaffolding of the public health sector. The result has been the resurgence of diseases that were earlier under control and a drop in preventive health activities such as immunizations.  (A. C. Laurell)


27. The 2010 World Health Report documented the widespread “financial catastrophe associated with direct payments for health services” and argued that “even when relatively low, any kind of charges imposed directly on households discourages using health-care services or pushes people living close to poverty under the poverty line.” In the view of many observers, co-payments are not in fact a financing mechanism, but rather a rationing strategy that results in lowering demand for services that, in turn, drives local health care institutions to non sustainability.


28. We know health care is the most expensive element of any package of state interventions to guarantee the human right to health and, no doubt, the conundrum of health care financing is at the very core of human rights.

The advent of so-called global health initiatives over the last decade has not succeeded in squaring the circle. Should equity, i.e., universal health coverage be a broadly normative target? If we determine that rationing health care services is unacceptable, then the question of costs immediately comes to the fore. The onus will have to shift to the financing of services for those presently excluded.


29. To put the above in context, note that: Among six emerging economies, the public health spending ratio fell by 6% between 1995 and 2007. In those that this spending rose, it did so at 1/3 the rate of advanced economies. (F+D , 48:1. March 2011)


30. A human rights perspective removes actions to relieve poverty-with-its-inability-to-pay from the voluntary realm of charity … to the (not really voluntary) domain of international and national law. To tackle health  inequalities, one has to push for aggressive social policies –and international human rights instruments provide not only the framework, but also explain the legal obligation that policies have to allow an equal opportunity to be healthy –an obligation that necessarily requires considering poverty and social disadvantage from a structural perspective. (P. Braveman)


Like the right to health, the right to nutrition is important intrinsically, also because of how it impacts on so many aspects of life.


31.The realization of both the human right to health and to nutrition implies the empowerment of disadvantaged  (often remote) communities to exercise the greatest possible control over the factors that determine their health and nutrition. ****

****: A caveat here is that the assumption that decentralization in health systems necessarily empowers claim holders is questionable.


32. The abstract concept of the human rights to health and to nutrition looks attractive in the political and academic discourse and in ad-hoc publications. But if it is not put into practice through claim-holders claiming, the concept has little value. Ergo, the human rights discourse can significantly empower people, but more so when they decide to use the right to health and to nutrition argument in their struggle.  (FIAN)


33. Bottom line here is that the period in which health and nutrition professionals felt able to make recommendations chiefly based on knowledge of human biology, now feels like a vanished Eden. (WPHNA)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


Adapted from Understanding Human Rights: Manual on HR Education, W. Benedek Ed., ETC, Graz, 2006;  Editorial, Health and HR, Vol. 13, No 1, 2011; The world medicines situation 2011: access to essential medicines as part of the right to health,  WHO/EMP/MIE/2011.2.10); Screen state action against hunger! How to use the Voluntary Guidelines on the RTF to monitor public policies, FIAN/ Welthungershilfe, Nov. 2007; CSDH framework for action, Last version, Discussion paper for the Commission on Social Determinants of Health, draft, April 2007; and F+D , 48:1. March 2011.



Caveat: Do not substitute one set of stereotypes you may hold-on-to by another set rather than challenging stereotyping itself. (D. Eade)


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  1. 1douveona

    i want to be a doctor just like you dr, julian atim

  2. 2shulamith Koenig

    In your hands, a document to learn and integrate into our daily lives
    Read it out loud to re imagine and re craft a meaningful change for a new future
    30 points of dignity
    MOVING FROM CHARITY TO DIGNITY – Free from fear and free from want
    Summary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    Recognizing the humanity of the other as our own
    Article 1 All human beings are born free and equal.
    Article 2 Everyone is entitled to the same human rights without discrimination of any kind.
    Article 3 Everyone has the human right to life, liberty, and security.
    Article 4 No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.
    Article 5 No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
    Article 6 Everyone has the human right to be recognized everywhere as a person before the law
    Article 7 Everyone is equal before the law and has the human right to equal protection of the law.
    Article 8 Everyone has the human right to a remedy if their human rights are violated.
    Article 9 No one shall be arrested, detained, or exiled arbitrarily.
    Article 10 Everyone has the human right to a fair trial.
    Article 11 Everyone has the human right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
    Article 12 Everyone has the human right to privacy and family life.
    Article 13 Everyone has the human right to freedom of movement and residence within the state, to leave any country and to return to one’s country.
    Article 14 Everyone has the human right to seek asylum from persecution.
    Article 15 Everyone has the human right to a nationality.
    Article 16 All adults have the human right to marry and found a family. Women and men have equal
    human rights to marry, within marriage, and at its dissolution.
    Article 17 Everyone has the human right to own property.
    Article 18 Everyone has the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
    Article 19 Everyone has the human right to freedom of opinion and expression.
    Article 20 Everyone has the human right to peaceful assembly and association.
    Article 21 Everyone has the human right to take part in government of one’s country directly or through free and fair elections and access to the public service
    Article 22 Everyone has the human right to social security and to the realization of the economic, social
    and cultural rights indispensable for dignity.
    Article 23 Everyone has the human right to work, to just conditions of work, to protection against
    unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, to sufficient pay to ensure a dignified
    existence for one’s self and one’s family, and the human right to join a trade union.
    Article 24 Everyone has the human right to rest and leisure.
    Article 25 Everyone has the human right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being,
    including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services.
    Article 26 Everyone has the human right to education including free and compulsory elementary
    education and human rights education.
    Article 27 Everyone has the human right to participate freely in the cultural life and to share in scientific
    progress, as well as to protection of their artistic, literary or scientific creations,
    Article 28 Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which these rights can be
    realized fully.
    Article 29 Everyone has duties to the community.
    Article 30 None of the human rights in this Declaration can be used to justify violating another
    human right.

    –Human rights are Universal, Indivisible, Interconnected and interrelated
    –With equality and without discrimination for all women and men, youth and children
    –Democracy as a delivery system of human rights
    –All must know, own, organize, plan and act guided by human rights as a way of life.

    Prepared by :,
    PDHRE, People’s movement for Human Rights Learning

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