Event Recap: Northeastern University’s Human Rights Institute

By HHR intern Kathy Wang

On November 1, I attended Northeastern University’s annual Human Rights Institute, sponsored by the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE). This year’s two-day program focused on the theme of social determinants of health and addressed economic, social, and cultural rights as they relate to current social justice issues. Speakers and attendees included academics, health practitioners, and human rights advocates.

PHRGE director (and Health and Human Rights board member) Martha Davis began the discussion by introducing the need to connect domestic issues to the larger community of international human rights concerns. She noted that advocates in the United States are often turning to international human rights frameworks to determine the connections between the public health and legal community, and urged attendees to explore the ”pairing of these concepts for further advocacy of health and human rights in the United States.”

The institute also featured a panel on “Human Rights and Health Outcomes,” with George J. Annas presenting on health and human rights from domestic and global standpoints. After giving an overview of the development of human rights, Annas explained his academic goals: “to reconcile the fields of bioethics, health law, and human rights, bridging doctor-patient, state, and global relationships.” Annas cited FXB founding director Jonathan Mann, calling him “possibly the most influential person in starting the field of health and human rights.” Annas explained that, like Mann, he believes “the determinants of health are social, therefore public health should be revolutionary. In order to change the determinants of society, we need to change society. That’s our goal in public health—to change society and make determinants of health available to everyone.”

Fellow panel speaker Patricia Illingworth drew on her recent book Us Before Me to talk about social determinants of health. She emphasized the idea of “social capital,” wherein “social relationships have value and are associated with norms of reciprocity and trust.” Core to the idea of social capital, Illingworth explained, are solidarity rights, which are based upon community responses and cannot be protected solely through state action. Illingworth believes that the right to health can only be achieved through community action and compliance, and urges that such rights are considered vital.

Panel members Sofia Charvel and Anja Rudiger presented case studies on the importance of recognizing the right to health, focusing on the social determinants that must be established. The institute provided a great forum for considering the right to health in a solidly social context.