WHO Candidates’ Weak Words

Caution Weak WordsThe 1948 Constitution of the World Health Organization positions the WHO as the ‘guardian’ of everyone’s right to health, which makes the forthcoming election of its next Director General to be of great importance to those who strive for human rights and health justice. This is why we have been closely following the election process, and studying the final three Candidate’s positions. As the WHO process is nearing its conclusion, we are deeply dismayed by the weak words on rights and shallow slogans coming from the next Director General of WHO.

In a few weeks, a new Director General (DG) of the World Health Organization (WHO) will be elected by the representatives of the 193 governments, known as Member States, that govern this UN agency. Although we believe that a human rights-based approach (HRBA) should be the framework of all of the World Health Organization (WHO) policies and programmes, many of the Member States do not share this view on rights. This may explain why after 70 years of the WHO’s mandate to progressively realize the right to health, it has failed to do so. It also may explain why the candidates will not risk losing the potential support of these regressive Member States by proposing real actions and reforms that would advance the right to health, including steps that would make the WHO more accountable to those they serve, the folks on the ground waiting for health justice.

Unfortunately, the billions of people that are most impacted by the policies of the WHO do not have any say in this election process. Only Member States have a vote on the candidates, as well as on every other aspect of WHO policies.

A key element of the human rights-based approach is the participation of affected communities and their civil society organizations in decisions on policies, which would enable the public to be more equal partners in public health development. The WHO is missing this crucial element, and after 70 years, must change.

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From Principle To Practice

Principle All Aboard‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ is a slogan used to express the principle that no policy should be decided without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. This principle is called ‘meaningful participation’, a key pillar of the UN’s Human Rights-Based Approach.

Both the principle and the slogan have grown out of social movements demanding change, beginning with the 18th and 19th century revolutions in Europe and America, as in “No taxation without representation!”. In Europe during the early 1900’s, a number of popular campaigns arose to try to transform monarchies to democracies, using a similar slogan to advocate for the principle of participation. Some twenty-five years ago, people with disabilities began using ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ to campaign for participation in the development of a pioneering UN treaty, Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), and then by people living with HIV (PLHIV) demanding a say in AIDS programmes.

In recent years, other affected groups and health activists have also embraced the slogan in their quest for a ‘seat at the table’, where policy decisions are made. However, it seems that this has not led to increased participation — our informal studies indicate that very few global health institutions have respected this principle nor our rights. Since we established the IMAXI Cooperative in 2010, we have focused much of our energies on advocating for the greater participation and representation of our peers from our communities, people living with life-threatening or life-changing diseases or disabilities who are reliant on local public health services. From our experience, it seems that while those at the top promise to ”leave no one behind”, those on the bottom are still being left out and excluded from where it really counts — where health policies are decided.

It’s high time to turn Nothing About Us Without Us into a reality by establishing a new governance ‘norm’ in every global health institution. To do so, we must begin with an evidence-based approach to claiming our right to participate. The IMAXI Cooperative, with a dozen friends and allies, have started All Aboard, a unique research and development project on the participation of the people most impacted by health policies and their community-based organisations in the decision making processes in global health governance.

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