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A Human Rights Approach to Non-Communicable Diseases: Expert Meeting Report

Text adopted from the website of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO).

More than twenty international law and global health experts have adopted a consensus statement on responses to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at the end of an expert meeting in The Hague on 22 September 2015.

The IDLO-hosted event was examining human rights-based approaches and domestic legal responses to NCDs. Participants reviewed how international human rights law could contribute to the global response to NCDs, and discussed whether new sources of legal obligation were needed. The focus was on obesity, diabetes and unhealthy diets, but the conclusions contain lessons for all NCDs.

“Who was protecting the rights of the three-year-old girl diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes as a result of an unhealthy diet?” asked Dr David Cavan of the International Diabetes Federation.

“In order to scale up action on global health, we need a global language. Human rights is that language,” said David Patterson, IDLO’s senior legal expert for health issues. “This means civil society participation in decisions about global health challenges, and promoting accountability and the rule of law.”

His position was echoed by Professor Brigit Toebes of the University of Groningen: “Human rights law,” she said, “contains a set of key values that can guide and inspire domestic NCD laws and policies.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCDs are the biggest cause of preventable illness, disability and mortality worldwide. They account for 38 million deaths annually, almost three-quarters of which occur in low- and middle-income countries. These premature deaths are largely avoidable by tackling shared risk factors, such as tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol.

Comprehensive legislative and regulatory frameworks and legal practices are an essential part of the national response, the meeting heard. The possibility was raised of adopting a specialized international legal instrument, within the framework of the WHO, which could strengthen the current legal framework for tackling NCDs.

The event was co-sponsored by Global Health Law Groningen and the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Working Group of the Netherlands School of Human Rights Research.

Read the NCDs Consensus Statement here.

The Right to Health 101

Health is a matter of daily concern of all human beings. This post aims to inform ordinary people about the right to health. Therefore, this post presents the most basic and essential information. The first installment consists of the following two parts:

  • The legal foundation of the right to health
  • Meaning of the right to health

1. The legal foundation of the right to health

The right to health is one fundamental human right under International Human Rights law and it has been recognized in numerous international instruments; see e.g. the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Among them, the ICESCR is considered as the fundamental instrument for the protection of the right to health. As of 2014, 162 countries have ratified the ICESCR (the United States of America, hasn’t ratified the Covenant yet).

In recent years, an increased legal understanding of the right to health as a human right in international law has led to the development of frameworks for realizing this right, including through General Comment 14, an explanatory document to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And there has been a growing trend to use international human rights law and health law to deal with a wide range of national health issues.

2. Meaning of the right to health

We often associate the right to health with the access to health care, and the building of hospitals. It’s true, but the right to health includes wider range of factors which can lead us to a healthy life. The right to health is an inclusive right (WHO, The Right to Health Fact Sheet 31), it encompasses health care, access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, education, health-related information, and other underlying determinants of health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights calls these the underlying determinants, which include:

  • Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation;
  • Safe food;
  • Adequate nutrition and housing;
  • Healthy working and environmental conditions;
  • Health-related education and information;
  • Gender equality.

General Comment 14 mentions four essential standards that the right to health imposes on health services, goods and facilities, which are called the ‘AAAQ’ Framework:

  • Available: Functioning public health and health-care facilities, goods and services have to be available in sufficient quantity.
  • Accessible: Health facilities, goods and services accessible to everyone, within the jurisdiction of the State party. Accessibility has four overlapping dimensions:
    1. Non-discrimination;
    2. Physical accessibility;
    3. Economical accessibility (affordability);
    4. Information accessibility.
  • Acceptable: All health facilities, goods and services must be respectful of medical ethics  and culturally appropriate, as well as sensitive to gender and life-cycle requirements.
  • Quality: Health facilities, goods and services must be scientifically and medically appropriate and of good quality.

The next installment of The Right to Health 101 will illustrate the right to health in practice, i.e how to make the right to health real, with a special focus on vulnerable groups, such as women and children, people with disabilities, and people living with aids.

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