New WHO Leader Will Need Human Rights to Counter Nationalistic Populism

Eric Friedman and Lawrence O. Gostin

The need for WHO leadership on human rights—and for global leadership on health and human rights beyond WHO—has always been present, yet has become ever more pressing. A reactionary, nationalist populism has been gaining momentum, particularly in the United States and parts of Europe, and some of its most disturbing features, such as xenophobia and disregard for international law and institutions, are surfacing elsewhere. Persisting health challenges—such as immense national and global health inequities, with universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals offering some hope of lessening them—and growing threats such as outbreaks of infectious disease, worsening antimicrobial resistance, and climate change demand the type of leadership that the right to health entails.

In this immensely challenging environment, WHO needs to become a 21st century institution that has the gravitas and credibility to carve a path through these obstacles towards global health justice. The next WHO Director-General, to be elected in May, must lead the organization there.

The right to health can light the way ahead, with reforms to, and driven by, WHO. These reforms must develop an internal governance that is far more welcoming of civil society, with WHO member states significantly increasing contributions so work on the social determinants of health can expand, and with enhanced transparency and accountability. Furthermore, reforms are needed so that WHO leads on global health equity and human rights, including through national health equity strategies and, above all, the Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH).

The FCGH could help bring the right to health to the next level by capturing core aspects of the right to health, such as:

1) participation and accountability, setting clear standards for people’s participation in health policy-making at all levels, and establishing multi-layered health accountability frameworks with standards to which all nations would be held;

2) equity, including by catalyzing national health equity strategies—which must be developed through broad participation, itself a potentially empowering process—and advancing data disaggregation and more equitable financing;

3) financial resources, with global norms on national and international health financing responsibilities; and

4) respecting and promoting the right to health in all policies, from setting standards on health impact assessments—including participatory processes in developing them, human rights standards, an equity focus, and follow-up processes—to firmly ensuring the primacy of the right to health in other legal regimes that may undermine.

From an earlier WHO treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, we know the power of international law to significantly advance health, with the transformative power of legally binding global health norms. As a treaty, the FCGH would increase political accountability and accountability through the courts, while helping protect health other treaty-based international regimes, such as trade. It would also be a bold assertion of global solidarity for global justice, as so urgently needed, “demonstrating that the community of nations are indeed stronger together.”

One candidate for the WHO Director-General election, David Nabarro, has recognized the value and civil society support that FCGH has already received, and the need to further explore the treaty (mentioned at 1:46:38 mark). A good first step would be establishing a WHO working group on the FCGH, with broad participation, particularly from states, civil society, and representatives of communities most affected by health inequities, along with relevant international agencies.

We see signs of resistance of the dangerous nationalist populism, from protests that persist and judicial checks on one of the administration’s vilest acts (an immigration and refugee travel ban, with its effects falling heaviest on Muslims) in the United States to the rejection of the far-right candidate in the elections in the Netherland. Such resistance can prevent some of the worst impacts on the right to health, from discrimination against migrants to cuts to programs vital for health. Meanwhile, let’s construct an edifice for the future of health and human rights, even as we stand against its destruction. WHO, right to health, and FCGH leadership ought to be a core part of that endeavor.

Eric A. Friedman, JD, is the Project Leader of the Platform for a Framework Convention on Global Health at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, USA.

See also Eric Friedman’s recent blog Human Rights and the Election of the Next Director-General: Public Accountability Now

Lawrence O. Gostin, JD, is University Professor of Global Health Law and Faculty Director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, USA.

Please address correspondence to the authors c/o Eric Friedman Email: