Seventy Years of Human Rights in Global Health: Drawing on a Contentious Past to Secure a Hopeful Future
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WASHINGTON –– As the world marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a team of distinguished global health experts including the World Health Organization’s Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and Georgetown University’s Lawrence Gostin, chart the evolution of human rights in health from the UN charter through the AIDS epidemic and the emergence of universal health coverage (UHC).
In “Seventy Years of Human Rights in Global Health: Drawing on a Contentious Past to Secure a Hopeful Future,” published Dec. 9 in the journal The Lancet, Tedros, Gostin and colleagues conclude that although major gains have been made in securing the right to health over the past 70 years, persistent threats such as stigma and discrimination are undermining human rights in many countries.
“The UDHR changed the world, giving people the power to claim their rights to health and to dignity,” says Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown.
However, financial constraints and global threats such as climate change and mass migration pose great risk to human health rights, writes a team, which also includes Benjamin Mason Meier of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Rebekah Thomas, and Veronica Magar of WHO.
“Every human being has a right to clean water, unpolluted air, nutritious food, and healthcare,” says Gostin. “Yet, punitive and discriminatory policies place hard-won rights in jeopardy. Many governments deny human rights to marginalized populations, such as migrants, racial minorities, gay and lesbian people and the poor. Basic freedoms are under attack in many places, such as the media and civil society organizations.”
In their review, the authors note specific milestones in the past 70 years that have shaped human and health rights.
Early on, Cold War superpowers “held sharply divergent positions on human rights, with Western nations embracing civil and political rights and the Soviet Bloc favoring economic and social rights.” However, in 1978, the WHO established global health policy with the Declaration of Alma-Ata that reaffirmed health as a “fundamental human right” and “world-wide social goal.”
But as the authors explain, it would be the AIDS pandemic in the early 1980s that “would give rise to the modern health and human rights movement” with WHO recognizing the “inextricable linkage” between public health and human rights.
Over the next several years, globalization brought new challenges and opportunities to human rights. More recently, Universal Health Coverage (UHC) has come to the forefront with WHO viewing UHC as the “best path to live up to WHO’s constitutional commitment to the right to health.”
“Millions are left behind in access to affordable health services,” Gostin says. “As we mark the UDHR’s 70th anniversary, the world must fight, once again, for human rights and the right to health.”
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The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University is the premier center for health law, scholarship, and policy. Celebrating its 10th year in 2017, its mission is to contribute to a more powerful and deeper understanding of the multiple ways in which law can be used to improve the public’s health, using objective evidence as a measure. The O’Neill Institute seeks to advance scholarship, science, research, and teaching that will encourage key decision-makers in the public, private, and civil society to employ the law as a positive tool for enabling more people in the United States and throughout the world to lead healthier lives.