It’s time that we face the facts about our right to health. There are two sides to look at: the facts about what this fundamental human right includes, and facts about why this right is denied to the vast majority of people around the world. This post begins on the first side, with an introduction to a comprehensive fact sheet from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization. Once we all know our right to health, we can better understand why it is often denied, and see clearer how we can address this failure of human rights and decency.
As human beings, our health and the health of those we care about is a matter of daily concern. Regardless of our age, gender, socio-economic or ethnic background, we consider our health to be our most basic and essential asset. Ill health, on the other hand, can keep us from going to school or to work, from attending to our family responsibilities or from participating fully in the activities of our community. By the same token, we are willing to make many sacrifices if only that would guarantee us and our families a longer and healthier life. In short, when we talk about well-being, health is often what we have in mind.
The right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and of our understanding of a life in dignity. The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to give it its full name, is not new. Internationally, it was first articulated in the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO), whose preamble defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. The preamble further states that “the enjoyment of 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.”
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights also mentioned health as part of the right to an adequate standard of living (art. 25). The right to health was again recognized as a human right in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Since then, other international human rights treaties have recognized or referred to the right to health or to elements of it, such as the right to medical care. The right to health is relevant to all States: every State has ratified at least one international human rights treaty recognizing the right to health. Moreover, States have committed themselves to protecting this right through international declarations, domestic legislation and policies, and at international conferences.
In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the right to the highest attainable standard of health, for instance by human rights treaty- monitoring bodies, by WHO and by the Commission on Human Rights (now replaced by the Human Rights Council), which in 2002 created the mandate of Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. These initiatives have helped clarify the nature of the right to health and how it can be achieved.
This fact sheet aims to shed light on the right to health in international human rights law as it currently stands, amidst the plethora of initiatives and proposals as to what the right to health may or should be. Consequently, it does not purport to provide an exhaustive list of relevant issues or to identify specific standards in relation to them.
The fact sheet starts by explaining what the right to health is and illustrating its implications for specific individuals and groups, and then elaborates upon States’ obligations with respect to the right. It ends with an overview of national, regional and international accountability and monitoring mechanisms.