Journal of Public Health Policy
Volume 34, Issue 4 (November 2013)
The Federation’s Pages
Journal of Public Health Policy (2013) 34, 574–579. doi:10.1057/jphp.2013.38
The right to health is coming of age: Evidence of impact and the importance of leadership
Flavia Bustreo a and Paul Hunt b
A Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health, World Health Organisation
B UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health (2002–2008)
The content of the Federation’s Page is selected and edited by the WFPHA and not reviewed by JPHP.
“At this year’s high-level session of the World Health Assembly, the right to the highest attainable standard of health was mentioned by Ministers of Health more often than at any recent meeting of the Assembly.1 Nepal’s Minister of Health and Population confirmed that his country has adopted a rights-based approach to health. The South African Minister of Health spoke about health care as ‘a birth right’. Colombia’s Assistant Health Minister called for a ‘global effort for the development and effective universalization of the human right to health’.
“Germany’s Minister of Health emphasized that health is ‘a key human right and of vital importance for all human development’. The US Secretary of Health and Human Services quoted the words of President Obama: access to healthcare is ‘not some earned privilege – it is a right’. Speakers observed that the right to the highest attainable standard of health is enshrined in the Constitution of the World Health Organization. Multiple references to the right to the highest attainable standard of health (or ‘right to health’) came from every region of the world.
“Some health policymakers will be quick to dismiss these references as rhetorical. After all, these are high-level speeches, not detailed policy prescriptions. Nonetheless, speeches can tell us something. Sometimes they signal important shifts in opinion and direction.
In our view, the numerous human rights references in Ministers’ speeches reflect profound changes in the relationship between health and human rights – changes beginning to be felt in many countries.
“Today, it is universally accepted that human rights not only include classic civil and political rights, but also economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health. This right is to be realized progressively and subject to the availability of resources. It demands accountability that comes in many forms, for example, by way of community groups, parliamentary committees, suitably designed maternal and peri-natal death audits, independent inspectors, national human rights institutions, and UN treaty-bodies…
…So, in conclusion, is it wise to dismiss as rhetorical flourishes the numerous references to human rights in high-level speeches at this year’s World Health Assembly? We do not think so. The speeches reflect growing recognition that the health community has an indispensable role to play in the implementation of the right to the highest attainable standard of health; they acknowledge that this fundamental human right can help health workers achieve their professional objectives; and they reflect profound changes that are taking place in the relationship between health and human rights. Moreover, all of these insights are confirmed by the WHO report: some Ministries of Health are already explicitly and actively using the right to health in their work, with evidence of beneficial impact. In short, the right to health is coming of age.
“If the right to the highest attainable standard of health is to realize its potential to save lives and reduce suffering, much remains to be done by a wide range of stakeholders. We hope that Ministers, Secretaries of Health, and other leaders of the public health community will chart the way forward in future meetings of the World Health Assembly – and beyond.”