This week we are
celebrating another fiftieth anniversary of the remarkable process of innovation
for peace, security and human dignity that followed the devastation of the Second World
At this crossroads - however - 50 years is too short a perspective. When the venue is
Paris and the issue is human rights we have to go further back in history. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights was written into a book of history where important chapters
had already been written. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 is one such
chapter - a real watershed in the history of civilizations.
As the French declaration was truly revolutionary in a national context - the Universal
Declaration was remarkable in its universal outreach.
As with 1789, 1948 was no end date. It was a call for continued action.
That is the important message today:
- We need sustained momentum to win and re-win respect for human rights.
- We need political commitment at the highest level.
- We need mobilization of civil society.
- We need a progressive force to stand up for billions who are denied the enjoyment of
The World Health Organization is a part of this force.
It is no coincidence that the idea to establish a world health organization emerged
from the same process that identified the universal value of human rights. WHO's
mandate is also universal. Our constitution calls for equity in stating 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
All UN agencies are parts of a broad alliance for human rights. Based on our mandates
we are pursuing different paths towards that goal. But one observation is common to all:
Poverty is the main obstacle.
WHO is no exception. Poverty leads to ill-health and ill-health breeds poverty. Where
there is structural poverty and ill-health there will be poor development - and poor human
rights. As Jonathan Mann a pioneer in the quest for health and human rights
noted: Violations of human rights always have negative effects on health.
Our understanding of development has grown and matured since 1948. The global UN
conferences in recent years Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Copenhagen and Beijing all point to
the same conclusion: Not a single country has succeeded in sustaining economic growth and
human development without first investing in human development. And no country is likely
to sustain progress and the health of its people if they suppress democracy and neglect
Never have so many had such broad and advanced access to health care. But never have so
many been denied access to health. The developing world carries 90 per cent of the disease
burden, yet poorer countries have access to only 10 per cent of the resources that go to
health. We are living in a world "à deux vitesses", as Robert Badinter puts it.
One reason for the unfulfilled agenda is precisely to be found in the neglect of basic
human rights. The health sector is often left dealing with the results of abuse: The
suffering from war and torture. The mutilations from the killing fields of anti-personnel
landmines. Diseases find fertile ground where information and education are lacking.
Building healthy communities is hampered where freedom of organization is restricted.
Diseases recede when the conditions exist for individuals to acquire knowledge and
information. When they fully enjoy their legitimate human rights.
Discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion or any other
reason makes the negative impact of poverty on health far worse.
Look at gender. Girls and women who are denied access to education, information and
real forms of economic, social and political participation are particularly vulnerable.
Some political regimes favour vaccination of young boys over young girls. It is totally
unacceptable and we need to speak out against such practices.
The clearest abuse of human rights sometimes becomes pure violence. Between 20% and 50%
of women are victims of physical abuse by their partners at some time in their lives.
Violence against women in situations of conflict and against women refugees is part of the
same drama. Our evidence base tells a sad story: By 2010 - violence will in itself be a
leading global burden of disease into the next century.
We need continued education and information campaigns to inform women of their rights.
There can be zero tolerance of violence against women and children.
With other UN Agencies, WHO is leading global efforts to abolish another wholly
unacceptable abuse - female genital mutilation - an unsafe and unjustifiable traditional
practice which affects 130 million girls and women worldwide.
The rights of children and adolescents is another progress deriving its legitimacy from
the 1948 declaration. Children do have rights - rights to survival, rights to health and
rights to health care. One hundred and ninety-one countries have ratified the Convention
on the Rights of the Child. But much needs to be achieved. UNICEF is making a renewed call
on Member States to live up to their commitments. It is a timely reminder that WHO fully
The opportunity that faces every little child is fundamentally unequal. There will be
an unfinished agenda for human rights as long as children are born in utmost poverty. As
long as children open their eyes only to die of curable causes. As long as there are drugs
and vaccines available - but not available for all. As long as children die or suffer
because their families lack information or basic knowledge.
Today the very challenge of the health sector is undergoing deep changes. Governments
question their role. Budgets are under pressure.
WHO will step up its advice on health sector reform. And in doing so, we will need to
draw on the key values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Health
security is a notion which encompasses many of the rights enlisted in the Declaration. It
means universal access to adequate health care, access to education and information, the
right to food in sufficient quantity and of good quality, but also the right to decent
housing and to live and work in an environment where known health risks are controlled.
What should guide the process of health sector reform? I see three concrete goals:
- Measurable reduction in the huge inequities that still haunt us - inequities within and
- Measurable reduction in the burden of diseases.
- And finally, universal access to efficient health services that respect the needs and
dignity of each individual.
Universal access to quality services is a bedrock principle. Where entire population
groups fall through, there is a recipe for human degradation. In recent months we have
witnessed how financial turmoil has lead to deep cuts in public health care. The results
can be devastating: Children are put out of school. Mothers do not receive maternal care.
Poverty gains ground. Ill-health gains ground. Human rights lose ground.
50 years after WHO was created and the Universal Declaration was adopted we need
renewed focus on the political and legal links between health and human rights. There are
important bridges to build. There have been differing philosophical perspectives,
vocabularies, professional recruitment and training, societal roles and methods of work.
Health and human rights are complementary approaches to the advancement of human well
Together with High Commissioner Mary Robinson, I will study more closely how our
relationships can be better highlighted and more clearly brought to the attention of the
world community. And we will go further: Together with the World Bank and the IMF, WHO
will work to establish universal health indicators that can help avoid dramatic social
degradation as a result of financial and economic restructuring.
This is a question of putting health into the right context. And this will be our
inspiration also in all of our technical work.
Two weeks ago I observed a Chinese woman in the Hubei province take her regular dose of
anti-tuberculosis drugs. If she can sustain her treatment - and if the drugs can be
financed - she will be cured and ready to live a life with new opportunities and a respect
for her fundamental human rights.
Every day 3000 children die from malaria. Malaria spreads and kills where the right of
individuals to a healthy environment is not fulfilled. Malaria flourishes where massive
violations of human rights result in community disintegration, population displacement and
civil unrest. We are mobilizing against the deadly spread of malaria - the single biggest
killer in Sub Saharan Africa. Through Roll Back Malaria WHO calls for action with UNICEF,
the World Bank and UNDP - as well as a number of other partners.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic ravages entire societies and regions. We must respond to the call
from UNAIDS on World Aids day and mobilize the awareness of the young. Equity is key and
we must strive towards making new drugs available to all without discrimination. WHO will
put a major focus on the health sector's ability to cope with this daunting
Into the next century, tobacco may well be the cause of the single largest burden of
disease. More than 80 per cent of smokers begin smoking before the age of 18. Creating
addiction among young people overruns the rights of the child, and governments do just
that when they allow tobacco companies to target young populations in the developing
world. Through its Tobacco Free initiative WHO will speak out for the right of the child -
and we will respond to the call from the World Health Assembly in preparing a Framework
Convention on Tobacco Control.
In 1948, the women and men who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
the WHO Constitution threw down a huge challenge - to secure human rights for all people
and to deliver universal access to health care.
They saw the links. We will build the bridges.
WHO will remain committed to this call for action.