Abstract – Realizing human rights-based approaches for action on the social determinants of health

Kumanan Rasanathan, Johanna Norenhag, and Nicole Valentine

Health and Human Rights 12/2

Published December 2010


Health inequities are clear evidence of violations of the right to health. Yet despite this common ground, action on the social determinants of health aiming to reduce health inequities is sometimes disconnected from implementation of human rights-based approaches. This is explained in part by differing histories, disciplines, and epistemologies. The capacity of human rights instruments to alter policies on social determinants can seem limited. An absolutist focus on individuals and processes can seem at odds with the attention to differences in population health outcomes central to the concern for health equity. However, developments in rights-based approaches have seen the terrain of human rights increasingly address social determinants. Human rights provide a firm legal basis for tackling the inequities in power and resources that the Commission on Social Determinants of Health identifies as fundamental to achieving health equity. Indicators and benchmarks developed for rights-based approaches to health systems can be developed further within health sectors and translated to other sectors and disciplines. The discourse and evidence base of social determinants can also contribute to implementing rights-based approaches, as its resultant policy momentum can provide essential levers to realize the right to health. Therefore, there is no clear-cut delineation between the human rights and health equity movements, and both may constructively work together to realize their goals. Such constructive collaboration will not prove straightforward; it will, instead, require profound engagement and innovations in both theory and practice. Yet this effort represents an important opportunity for those who seek social justice in health.