Human Rights Day: Advancing Human Rights for Global Health through the World Health Organization

Human Rights Day, a United Nations campaign that calls for people to know and push for their rights no matter where they are in the world, is observed every year on the 10th of December. Hanna Huffstetler, Claudia Quiros, Rebekah Thomas and Benjamin Mason Meier, Section Editor for BMC International Health and Human Rights, discuss this important day and the context of human rights as a basis for the advancement of global health.

This blog was written by Benjamin Mason Meier, Hanna Huffstetler, Claudia Quiros & Rebekah Thomas

“Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, remarks delivered at the United Nations in New York on March 27, 1958.

Committing to equal rights

During this week nearly seventy years ago, the nations of the world convened the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Developed in the wake of World War II, the UDHR proclaimed the powerful idea that all individuals, by virtue of their humanity, are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This groundbreaking commitment to social progress—to protect universal values of equality, justice, and human dignity—would come to be celebrated each year on International Human Rights Day. Celebrated on the December 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR, Human Rights Day is part of an enduring effort to place human rights at the forefront of the global conscience. This commemoration presents an opportunity not only to take stock of the progress the world has made in its efforts to realize health-related human rights, but also to reflect on the health and human rights challenges that lie ahead.

Proclaiming the UDHR as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” states worked under the auspices of the nascent UN to enumerate the universal and inalienable rights of all individuals throughout the world.[1] In defining an interrelated set of human rights for the public’s health, states declared in the UDHR that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services….[2]

There was widespread international agreement that this “standard of living” included both the fulfillment of medical care and the realization of underlying determinants of health, including within this right public health obligations for food safety and nutrition, sanitary housing, disease prevention, and comprehensive social security.

While not a legally binding document, the UDHR has retained widespread normative supremacy in health and human rights discourses, and “nations (states) have endowed it with great legitimacy through their actions, including its legal and political invocation at the national and international levels.”[3] Where the UDHR has inspired the creation of nearly 100 human rights instruments since World War II, establishing legal frameworks for rights-based justice in health, states have moved in increasing numbers to develop these universal norms under international law and implement human rights through public policy.

Human Rights Day was first developed to build support for the UDHR and the seminal 1996 covenants that would codify its obligations – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To raise global awareness in support of human rights, the UN developed these anniversary celebrations for the UDHR to (1) recognize past UN accomplishments in promoting human rights, (2) publicize specific substantive rights of the UDHR, and (3) stimulate public policy discussions on human rights advancement. Where these UN celebrations sought to advance human rights within the respective purview of UN specialized agencies, such celebrations would have particular relevance to the advancement of health-related human rights obligations through the World Health Organization (WHO).

Through its engagement with human rights as a basis for the advancement of global health, WHO has long grappled with its responsibilities for the development and implementation of health-related human rights.[4]  Human Rights Day has historically offered an opportunity for WHO to critically examine its rights-based efforts, and in recent years, WHO has sought expand this engagement to provoke thoughtful reflection throughout the world about how human rights can contribute to the realization of health.

Human Rights Day and the World Health Organization

Echoing this year’s call for Human Rights Day, with the UN launching a movement to “stand up for someone’s rights today” through its #StandUp4HumanRights Campaign, WHO is addressing health inequalities rooted in discrimination—on the basis of age, sex, race, health status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identify, migration status, and other factors. WHO this year signed the Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings, committing UN entities to: support states to align national and international laws and standards; to empower health workers and users of health services to fulfill their roles and responsibilities and claim their rights; and foster accountability by declaring discrimination in health care settings unacceptable. WHO’s new Director-General has already signaled his determination to shift toward greater accountability for rights-based results and has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to collaborate in addressing human rights “to health and through health.”[5] The current drafting of WHO’s next Global Programme of Work reflects this commitment to human rights. Developed through an expansive, bottom-up consultative process that focuses explicitly on reaching health equity and advancing gender equality and human rights, the Global Programme of Work builds on the groundbreaking Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which, like human rights, acknowledge that health is indivisible from its social determinants. Commemorating this Human Rights Day, WHO seeks to ensure that health and human rights become the defining success of the SDG era.

The celebration of International Human Rights Day provides a reminder that human rights are universal and inalienable, and yet are all too often flouted in meeting health goals, raising an imperative to take stock of how far global actors have come in delivering on the right to health, health-related human rights, and rights-based approaches to health. Increasingly explicit statements of support for human rights in health augur well for the future of human rights in global health. Human Rights Day offers the opportunity to measure these commitments against the standards laid out under the UDHR and the larger human rights framework, providing an opportunity to raise our voices in support for those ambitions that have yet to be realized.

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble (1948).

[2] Ibid., article 25(1).

[3] Jonathan M. Mann et al., Health and Human Rights, in Health and Human Rights 7, 9 (Jonathan M. Mann et al., eds. 1999).

[4] Rebekah Thomas and Veronica Magar, Mainstreaming Human Rights Across WHO, in Human Rights in Global Health: Rights-Based Governance for a Globalizing World (Benjamin Mason Meier and Lawrence O. Gostin, eds. forthcoming).

[5] WHO, Agreement signed between WHO and UN Human Rights agency to advance work on health and human rights, 21 November 2017, at http://www.who.int/life-course/news/who-unhcr-agreement-on-health-and-human-rights/en/.

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