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Alicia Ely Yamin
Health and Human Rights 11/2
Published December 2009
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges.
— Anatole France
The foundational principle of human rights is that all human beings are equal in rights, dignity, and worth. Yet we live in a world ravaged by social inequalities both within and between countries, which have profound implications for the distribution of population health as well as the unequal enjoyment of economic and social rights and of human rights generally. It is far from clear that we have a consensus in the human rights community about which inequalities in health constitute inequities or how egalitarian a society must be to conform to the requirements of a social order in which all human rights can be realized. Further, the conversations in the world of human rights have largely been divorced from those in the worlds of development and public health. In this article, I attempt to bring those two conversations together. I first set out how concepts of formal and substantive equality and non-discrimination are defined under international law and might be applied in practice to questions we face in public health today. I argue that the application of these concepts is far from formulaic; interpretations of equality and non-discrimination necessarily reflect deeply held understandings about justice, power, and how we are the same and different from one another. I then explore how far a human rights framework can guide us in terms of some of these underlying questions in health and development policy, particularly in relation to how much priority should be given to the worst off in society, what kind of equality we should be seeking from a human rights perspective, and how we should evaluate who is worst off in terms of health. In conclusion, I argue that the great power of applying a human rights framework to health lies in denaturalizing the inequalities that pervade our societies and our world, and in establishing that all people — by virtue of being human — have both a claim for redress when they are treated unfairly and a right to participate in determining what equity and equality require in a given context.
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