Face the Facts – Right to Health

factsIt’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.

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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.”

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Before We Need OHCHR Help

Before OHCHR Two years ago, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations agency to protect, defend, and promote our human rights, published ”How To Follow Up On United Nations Human Rights Recommendations”. It is intended for civil society organizations (CSO), specifically the larger national and international ones. This sixty-page “Practical Guide” has both useful information on OHCHR procedures and mechanisms, and offers many short case studies and insights into how different CSOs have used the UN system to advance human rights.

The OHCHR system of ‘follow up’ is well-intentioned, although it is extremely slow, bureaucratic, and not accessible to those without resources — who are perhaps those most in need of having their rights defended. Although this OHCHR guide is good at what it aims to do, it doesn’t take into account the needs of individual rights-holders or small rights-seeking organizations in communities around the world. Poor people from marginalized communities need to be able to address, simply, cheaply and without fear, the failures of their governments or local authorities to implement UN human rights recommendations – failures that can be fatal for them or their families.

For example, there are billions of poor marginalized people currently being denied access to medicines and adequate care, water, or food, all of which are the legal obligation of Governments to provide. They also have little or no access to free legal aid, which means that this system of ‘follow-up’ is often a non-starter — it leaves behind those most in need.

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