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New who publication explores important links between health and human rights, an area drawing increased attention

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Human rights violations such as discrimination or violence against women and children and harmful traditional practices can have serious health consequences. Protecting human rights, however, can reduce vulnerability to and the impact of ill health.

To acknowledge and spell out the linkages between health and human rights, tomorrow the World Health Organization (WHO) is publishing 25 Questions and Answers on Health and Human Rights. This is the first compilation of answers to key questions in an area which lately has received added focus and attention. The booklet is intended to assist governments and others concerned in developing a human rights approach to public health work.

The publication reflects the most current developments and trends in health and human rights. It discusses a number of issues related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic such as access to medicines, use of health status information and non-discrimination. Also covered are protection of health care workers and facilities and access to medical care during conflicts. Other relevant, current issues covered in the booklet are the availability to all of the benefits of scientific progress and the obligation of states to assist those with fewer resources in tackling diseases of poverty

The 36-page booklet, divided into three sections, asks and answers such important questions as:

- What happens if the protection of public health necessitates the restriction of certain human rights (e.g. to control an outbreak of a lethal communicable disease)?

- How does globalization affect the promotion and protection of human rights?

- How can poor countries with resource limitations be held to the same human rights standards as rich countries?

Poorly designed or implemented health programmes and policies can violate human rights. 25 Questions and Answers describes what a rights-based approach to health consists of: it pays attention to the most vulnerable population groups (for instance, children; ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities; refugees; the elderly and the disabled); it uses a gender perspective; it analyses data in order to detect discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, health status, etc.; it ensures participation of groups in health policies affecting them; it educates and keeps people informed on health issues and guarantees their right to privacy.

"Linking health and human rights could act as a force for mobilizing and empowering the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Advancing health as a human right means making people conscious of both their oppression and the possibility of change," said Ms Helena Nygren-Krug, author of the publication and Health and Human Rights Focal Point, WHO.

A human rights approach: describes society's obligations to respond to the inalienable rights of individuals; empowers people to demand health as a right, not as charity; and gives communities legal and moral bases from which to obtain international assistance when needed.

Developments in health and human rights

Although the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being was articulated for the very first time in the WHO Constitution in 1946, the right to health remained obscure in terms of its scope, content, and practical application for decades, largely due to Cold War politics. But there is new momentum on health and human rights. "Since the beginning of this millennium, the human rights movement has witnessed extraordinary developments in advancing the right to health, giving us an excellent opportunity to promote and protect the health of populations throughout the world," stated Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General, WHO. Human rights discourse gives us an inspirational framework and a useful guide for analysis and action. UN human rights mechanisms provide important future avenues towards increasing accountability for health."

Some promising new developments in health and human rights are as follows:

This year, for the first time, the Commission on Human Rights, the main United Nations policy-making body on human rights, adopted a resolution on the right to health to appoint a special rapporteur (an independent expert) to report annually to the Commission on the extent to which governments are fulfilling the right to health.

In another extraordinary development, UN member states voted to explore the creation of a new mechanism within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights whereby individuals can petition their governments at the international level for failure to respect, protect or fulfil the right to health and other economic and social rights.

The Committee in charge of monitoring the compliance of governments with their obligations under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has interpreted the right to health to mean that governments must strive to ensure that health facilities, services and goods are available, accessible, affordable, acceptable and of good quality. Under the treaty, countries are obliged to take concrete and targeted steps within existing resources and to engage in international assistance and cooperation to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to health.

The right to health is also acquiring greater strength within national legal frameworks. Over 100 constitutions now enshrine health as a human right. For instance, cases of individuals petitioning the courts for access to anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS as a legal entitlement are mushrooming around the world.

Reflecting universal values, every country in the world is now party to at least one human rights treaty which contain key provisions relevant to the battle towards securing health and prosperity worldwide.

25 Questions and Answers on Health and Human Rights was produced as a result of engaging widely over two years with leading experts in the field, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations who have long-standing experience in linking human rights with the broader development agenda in which health is a centrepiece.

This publication launches the WHO Health and Human Rights Publication Series, which will explore the relationship between health and human rights in relation to topics such as discrimination and migration in the coming months and years.

Questions and Answers on Health and Human Rights, WHO, 2002, by Helena Nygren-Krug, Health and Human Rights Focal Point, WHO may be ordered from:
Ms. A. Peters
Email: petersa@who.int
Telephone: +41 22 791 2882
Fax: +41 22 791 4726.

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For more information contact:

Ms Melinda Henry
Telephone: +41 (22) 791 2535
Mobile phone: +41 (79) 477 1738
Fax: +41 (22) 791 4858
E-mail: henrym@who.int