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The right to health: realizing a 65-year-old global commitment

By José M. Zuniga

A strong case can be made, based upon modern human rights concepts and international law, that the right to health, as well as health-related services, is a human right. However, this right has been far from fully realized in any country of the world, including those most affluent (e.g. the United States), even 65 years after the right to health was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), whose adoption we annually commemorate on Human Rights Day.

The right to health is made explicit in the UDHR, which declares that:  “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including medical care and the right to security in the event of sickness or disability.” The UDHR is not alone in articulating the right to health. The preamble to the World Health Organization (WHO) constitution states, “The highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being, without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” And, the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights outlines the steps governments should take to realize the right to health, calling upon them to create “the conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.”


There is nothing ambiguous in any of that language, or the right to health-related language in other covenants enumerating the rights of children, people with disabilities, and women. Yet, as unambiguous as we may think this codification in legally binding international and regional treaties may be, and despite the fact the ideal of a right to health has also been enshrined in many national constitutions, its “operationalization” by many countries, with very notable exceptions, has progressed at a glacial pace, often in fits and starts. Although it is clear that resource and other limitations make it impossible for any government to completely fulfill the right to health, particularly given current economic constraints, it is implicit that the realization of these rights is considered to be a matter of clear and steady progress toward that ideal.

The actual content, meaning, and appropriate methods to secure the fulfillment of the right to health thus requires interpretation at the community level, particularly because the human rights movement itself is based ultimately on people’s belief in rights as rights. Thus, it is only when rights are accepted as such, with legitimate societal consensus, that they have power. So, ultimately, the people must be diligent in understanding their rights while additionally holding their governments accountable for carrying out state-specific responsibilities. To the extent that people believe in them, rights achieve the cultural and social legitimacy that alone confers real power behind the concept of a human right. Therefore, without a strong belief in and commitment to the right, there can be no progress.

Where better to start than with a commitment to challenge the status quo of health as a privilege — fully aware of the difficulties, unavoidable complexities, and inherent conflicts in making such a commitment? We must therefore re-orient our societal discourse and stand behind a right that challenges the status quo of ongoing unnecessary suffering and hastened deaths by demanding the right to health for all people.

Declaring and then realizing the right to health will take more time, particularly because more than six decades since the UDHR adoption no country has fully met that ideal. But, in doing so and at a quicker pace, recognizing the urgent need created by millions of people afflicted by disease and ill-health, we will be reminded with whom we stand and why.

 José M. Zuniga is Co-Editor of Advancing the Human Right to Health (published this year by Oxford University Press), and he serves as President/CEO of the 20,000-member International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC).

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Image credit: My Trusty Gavel. © Brian Turner. Creative Commons License, via Wikimedia Commons.

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