Abstract – Will we take suffering seriously? Reflections on what applying a human rights framework to health means and why we should care1


Alicia Ely Yamin


Since this journal was first published, rights-based approaches to health have proliferated in the health and development communities. At the same time, human rights advocacy organizations, courts, and UN actors have increasingly been engaged in applying rights norms in health contexts. Together with others in this issue, this article is a call not to lose sight of the radical potential of using a human rights paradigm to promote health — even as we go about the pragmatic work of translating rights frameworks into practice in our research, advocacy, litigation strategies, program planning, and service delivery. Drawing together points made in other pieces in this issue, the article describes certain conceptual and practical implications of a transformative engagement between health and human rights. It argues that an appropriate starting point is to take suffering seriously; in so doing, approaches in both health and rights will necessarily shift. A human rights approach challenges biological individualism in both clinical medicine and public health, and builds on work in social epidemiology by providing frameworks for accountability. At the same time, using rights to advance the health of marginalized peoples around the world requires critiquing and expanding limited approaches to human rights, in theory and practice.