Abstract – What is a human-rights based approach to health and does it matter?

Leslie London

Health and Human Rights 10/1

Published June 2008



A human rights approach to health is critical to address growing global health inequalities. Three aspects of the nature of health as a right are relevant to shaping a human rights approach to health: 1) the indivisibility of civil and political rights, and socio-economic rights; 2) active agency by those vulnerable to human rights violations; and 3) the powerful normative role of human rights in establishing accountability for protections and freedoms. Health professionals’ practice, typically governed by ethical codes, may benefit from human rights guidelines, particularly in situations of dual loyalty where clients’ or communities’ human rights are threatened. Moreover, institutional accountability for protecting human rights is essential to avoid shifting responsibility solely onto the health professional. Human rights approaches can include holding states and other parties accountable, developing policies and programs consistent with human rights, and facilitating redress for victims of violations of the right to health. However, underlying all models is the need to enable active social mobilization, without which legal approaches to rights lack sustainability and power. Evidence from South and Southern Africa has shown that different conceptions of what is meant by human rights impact substantially on state willingness and ability to meet constitutional obligations with regard to the right to health. New approaches to health policy development, which draw on the agency of vulnerable groups, link local struggles with their global context, and explicitly incorporate rights frameworks into public health planning are needed. Models that move away from individualizing conflict over rights between health professionals as disempowered duty bearers and patients as frustrated rights holders, toward more mutual approaches to shared rights objectives may be possible and are being actively pursued through the development of a learning network to realize the right to health in South Africa.