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Mailman School of Public Health

The Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health

intro | relationship to health | key standards, actors & venues | forms of work | role of the US | conclusion

Glossary of Key Concepts

This final section will focus on concepts in rights, including the fact that human rights is an evolving system, which interacts dynamically with national and local level actions.

Human rights are:

  • A system of claims made with reference to agreed to standards and promise of response
  • Intended to address not only unjust things, but the structures of power that keep unjust things the way they are in our societies
  • Constantly evolving

Universality – the notion that human rights have global applicability, with all persons globally standing in the same equal relationship to rights claims – no one is superior to another in regard to the right to make a claim, no one regardless of where they live or other aspects of their status in the world is disqualified because they are all human

Indivisible and inter-related rights – refers to the equal importance and linked enjoyment of each human right, such that no right is less important or essential than any other right and diminishing one diminishes all.

Non-discrimination – a fundamental human rights principle promising that all human rights are guaranteed to all persons without unfair distinctions (discrimination).

Accountability – the idea that an actor (always the state, and increasingly, other actors) can be and should be assessed publicly and should respond by remedying any failures, in its performance of a duty. Accountability is a dynamic system, with feedback loops between duty bearers and the persons to whom they owe a duty; and also addressing the adequacy of the standard of obligations or rights upon which the practice is judged.

Q: What examples of systems of accountability can you name in public health practice?
A: Institutional Review Boards (IRB)

Cultural relativism the notion that no culture – and its attendant practices that bear on rights and people -- is superior to another; indeed members of one culture may not even be able to assess the values and strengths of another culture fairly. Through this concept, several scholars and world leaders challenge the notion of a common understanding of rights, as they note that moral rules and social institutions evidence an astonishing cultural and historical variability. Cultural relativism is often opposed to universalism, but many activists and scholars find that they are more fluid and both concepts can be used to ensure local rights work has both local relevance, participation of affected people and yet part of a global conversation on rights.

Q: What examples of cultural relativist claims about rights can you think of in the United States?

the right to bear arms as a US Constitutional claim, when many other nations do not accept free access to gun ownership

freedom of speech, including criticism of the government and of religion (no crime of blasphemy)

the right to execute convicted criminals, when many countries believe capital punishment is a human rights violation

equality between women and men in control of reproduction

Nonfulfillment - failure to fulfill or comply with a human rights obligation.

Derogation - a suspension in law of existing obligations for rights. This usually happens because of a crisis such as an outbreak of disease or during war.

Sovereignty – A sovereign state (national government of a country) is often described as one that is free and independent, having undivided jurisdiction over all persons and property within its territory. No other nation may rightfully interfere in its domestic affairs.

Treaty/covenant/convention -- all three words mean the same thing: a multi-lateral (between two or more nations) legally binding agreement. Treaties function like international contracts, they set a standard of behavior and often the remedies for violation. International treaties govern many things today – ranging from airplane travel, human rights, postal systems, fishing rights, environmental concerns, trade and services, international adoption, armed conflicts.

Reservations, declarations and understandings – all law-based means by which a national government ratifying a treaty can modify the impact and scope of that treaty on its domestic practice. A reservation is the most severe; it purports to actually exclude a specific promise/obligation from being operative in that country. An understanding sets out how the ratifying state perceives the nature of the obligation, and a declaration is mostly for domestic consumption and states how it will meet the obligations.

Ratification – the national level process by which a nation state becomes legally bound to an international treaty. In the US , this requires the signature of the President and a 2/3 majority in the Senate. All Nation States are encouraged to adopt treaties into their own national legal systems through ratification. Once a treaty has been ratified, the state must adopt appropriate measures to ensure that the treaty is implemented and has real effect locally. Once the domestic legal system has incorporated the international standard, then remedies can be sought through the domestic system.

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