Human rights have shaped our history. We have fought over and for them. But what are human rights? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as set forth by the United Nations in 1948 placed at its core, that “human rights are birth rights – rights that all people have by virtue of being human, and require all humans to be treated equally and consistent with human dignity and equality.” This premise is the basis of both our society make up and is a part of the Judeo-Christian belief.
These norms include health rights, which have been a topic of debate. Whether an individual believes basic healthcare is a privilege or a right, as a society and community, we have agreed that it is a right. Since 1976, we have been a part of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights adopted by the UN. These rights include the right to just and favorable work conditions, the right to water, the right to education, the right to equal access to public services, the right to social security and the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.
This human rights framework does not distinguish each right as a separate focus, but views them all together. This idea is consistent with the concept of how social determinants play a key role in health and well-being. The lines between non-health and health sectors become blurred and their roles are interdependent on each other. Without good health one cannot actively participate in society, and without a focus on social determinants, one cannot have good health.
Treating health and well-being as a human right requires us to use the principles and learning from other human rights initiatives. Human rights must be stated and focus must be made to ensure their implementation. We also know that it takes time to realize human rights because of the effort needed to change cultural, social, and economic norms and policies. We have historically viewed the right to health as one of just access, but from a human rights lens, the right to health is much more encompassing and needs a wider view. Focusing just on access alone will not assure the human right of health.
Changing this frame of reference and recognizing health as a human right can appeal to the public in ways that are more encompassing than just advocating for particular programs, which might not catch the moral and political dimensions that are associated with human rights. Just using the human rights language garners strong public support as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ issues, and the disability rights movement.
Linking health movements to human rights can create the culture that is needed in order to create a culture of health. Without such a shift, we will only be marginally successful in delivering improved health and well-being.