Gender, equity and human rights

Human rights at WHO: Lessons from the past, voices from the present and perspectives for the future

An old man with a baby in his arms
World Bank/Allison Kwesell

27 APRIL 2017 – For many, the Sustainable Development Goals mark the beginning of a new era for health and human rights – grounded in international law, and designed to ensure no-one is left behind.

To mark the groundswell around health and human rights, and as the campaign for a new Director-General nears an end, WHO has been taking stock of its past and present efforts to mainstream human rights, and what these efforts tell us about the future of human rights in global public health.

Responding to interest from scholars in the burgeoning field of health and human rights, WHO invited senior staff and scholars to share their perspectives - historical, political, technical and legal - on the organization’s work.

Perspectives on human rights

A historical perspective:

“Moving from its “turbulent” early years, during which any mention of the right to health was absent, through the AIDS crisis to present stability, the Organization has realized that it cannot promote public health without promoting human rights. Human rights matter. Human rights evolve. WHO is instrumental to the evolution of health-related rights.”
Professor Benjamin Mason Meier, Associate Professor of Global Health Policy at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A technical perspective:

“The right to health is about more than access to health care. It is about freedom of movement. Of assembly. Where these liberties are not freely exercised – ensuring access to affordable health care is meaningless.’
Agnes Soucat, Director, Health Systems Governance and Finance, WHO

A political perspective:

“We need:

  • A stronger political mandate from Member States at WHO in support of human rights-based approaches
  • Stronger collaborations between public health professionals and experts, and the bodies and institutions that govern and support them.
  • To continue measuring the impact of human rights-based approaches to health as policy decisions must be supported by evidence

In this regard, the conclusions of the groundbreaking and high-level Health and Human Rights Working Group for Women, Children and Adolescents will be key.”
Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health, WHO

“A more careful examination of WHO policies and practice in the last 5 years actually shows a noticeable increase and diversification of human rights political commitments, but also practice at WHO.”
Rebekah Thomas, Human Rights focal point, Gender, Equity and Human Rights, WHO

A legal perspective:

“We should be using human rights as a way of getting our health message across. Speaking the language of human rights and using the tools that human rights provides, can help us achieve our goals. We should routinely be asking ourselves whether human rights would be a better way of presenting some of our issues.

Human rights:

  • Gives us a way to engage a different set of actors in the national sphere.
  • Gives you access to a whole new set of international machinery.
  • And, in some cases at least, it gives the force of law to some health related human rights.

Sometimes you need more than fine words and good intentions; being able to demonstrate to States that they already have a legal obligation to take action can be a powerful tool. It won’t always be available, but where it is, again States may be more likely to pay attention.”
Derek Walton, Legal Counsel, WHO

The way forward

“The newly appointed United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres has said that: ”Disregard for human rights is a “disease spreading globally.” Described in these terms, who better than WHO to be part of the cure?
Dr Veronica Magar, Team Leader, Gender, Equity and Human Rights, WHO