Abstract – Our place in the world: Conceptualizing obligations beyond borders in human rights-based approaches to health

Alicia Ely Yamin

Health and Human Rights 12/2

Published December 2010


The case of Haiti’s devastating earthquake and the reactions it has elicited sharply illustrate an array of seemingly dichotomous ways of understanding obligations of “international assistance and cooperation,” which are taken up by authors in this issue. First, there is a tension between dealing with immediate humanitarian needs and addressing underlying structural causes. Second, there is the related dichotomy between compassion/charity and the accountability for legal obligations that a human rights approach to health and development demands. Third, within a framework for accountability, there is a tension between an ahistorical understanding of international responsibility — based purely on the self-evident need of fellow human beings — and a contextually-rooted accountability. Finally, the situation of Haiti begs the question of whether we can address immense human suffering in the world through a strongly statist model or whether we require a more cosmopolitan understanding of ethical and legal obligations across borders. Drawing on the Critical Concepts articles in this issue, this essay briefly explores some of these tensions, and the potential contributions and limitations of applying a human rights framework to advance global health.