Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A right to health?

Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN official Paul Hunt, with support from such worthies as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the ubiquitous Bono, have launched a campaign to have the world acknowledge health as a human right, under the banner of their organization Realizing Rights, The Ethical Globalization Initiative. (There's a petition there that you can sign if you are so inclined.)

Of course, this could be viewed as redundant and repetitive. In fact the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already does this, as do various other treaties that most nations have signed. Indeed, the the international covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights famously declares, "The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being . . ." As we have discussed here before, this statement is a nice sentiment, but it is largely meaningless. Without going into the practical and philosophical complexities of trying to make sense of the covenant, Realizing Rights cuts the Gordian Knot by asking governments around the world to acknowledge a standard of basic needs, calling on goverments

To promote access to clean water, health care, adequate nutrition and sanitation without discrimination;
To invest in strong health systems;
To make sure that health care decisions are made accountably and with public participation;
To support low-income countries in their efforts to bring decent health to their peoples

Unfortunately, the campaign is not redundant because these basic rights are not honored by the world's governments. The single biggest offender is the United States. The Bush administration has refused calls by the leaders of the other developed nations to contribute .7% of GDP to development aid; refuses to provide public health assistance without guarantees that recipients won't promote family planning and use of condoms; zealously defends patent rights that keep essential drugs expensive; refuses to eliminate agricultural subsidies that dump massive quantities of cheap grain on world markets and so destroy developing countries' agricultural sectors; and oh yes, does not provide health care to tens of millions of its own people, while yapping about something called a "culture of life." So I guess we need to sign the petition.

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