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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

The Relationship of Human Rights to Health

Relating human rights to health means looking at all aspects of rights work – formal law based work, and informal rights work, like activism and service delivery. It helps that health is named as a right in legally binding treaties, but the reality of how one works to see connections between ill-health, discrimination or marginalization, and political choices for example, is key.

What follows are a few core statements and frameworks linking human rights to health.

Several rights relating to health are established in international human rights treaties as well as in US law.

In addition to the Constitution of the World Health Organization, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also establishes a right to health:

Article 12

  • The States Parties to the Present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
  • The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:
    • The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child
    • The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene
    • The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases
    • The creation of conditions which would assure access to all medical services and medical attention in the event of sickness

Another document of particular relevance to public health is the Declaration of Alma Ata adopted at the 1978 International Conference on Primary Health Care, which affirmed health as a fundamental human right and asserted the need for comprehensive health care services for all people. (The Alma Ata document can be found at: )


Q: How do you see these other rights pertaining to health?
  • The right to privacy
  • The right to non-discrimination
  • The right to participation
  • The right to information
  • Rights to liberty and security of the person
  • Rights to the benefits of scientific advances
  • The rights to safe and healthy working conditions
Q: What other rights would you include in this list?


Key Relationships between Human Rights and Health

In their book on health and human rights, Jonathan Mann, Sofia Gruskin, Michael Grodin and George Annas [J.Mann, S. Gruskin, M.Grodin and G. Annas (eds.) Health and Human Rights: A Reader, New York: Routledge (1999)] have set out three ways in which human rights and health can be seen connected:

1. The impact of human rights violations on health
Some examples of the impact of violations of human rights on health are obvious; for example, a person who is tortured will experience health problems as a result. Other examples of impacts of human rights violations on health are less obvious. Denial of access to accurate information about HIV/AIDS is an example of a human rights violation with serious health implications, as is denial of information about contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention methods like condoms. Failure to fulfill or comply with a human rights obligation is called “nonfulfillment”.

2. The impact of health policies and programs on human rights
This connection of health and human rights can take several forms.

  • Public health policies and programs are created with the aim of bettering the health of the population, however, in deciding what health issues will receive priority, states and organizations may fail to recognize and address issues that disproportionately affect women or minority groups, in violation of the right to non-discrimination.
  • States may fail to take measures to assure that the right privacy is upheld and that confidentiality is maintained in the provision of health services.
  • States are allowed to limit rights in the name of protecting the public’s health from epidemic disease. Many US court cases have upheld the state’s right to deprive a person with active tuberculosis of their liberty by quarantine.

3. The inter-relationship between enjoyment of rights and conditions that promote health
A focus on the underlying conditions that create health and well-being reveals that many of these conditions are human rights issues. The most profound underlying condition is social and economic status. Lower socioeconomic status has been repeatedly linked to poorer health. Racial and gender discrimination are also underlying conditions which can negatively impact health.

For more information on the relationship between health and human rights, see 25 Questions and Answers on Health and Human Rights

continue to... Key Standards, Actors and Venues

Photo Credit: Carol Guzy,
Washington Post




Mailman School of Public Health